Still just a girl in a man’s world

Photo Credit: Samir Samuel David, Clicaholic Studio

I had a job interview the other day. As always in situations like that, I agonized over what to wear. Skirt can’t be too short because I have long legs; can’t look too sexy. Hair and makeup must be simple; can’t look too pretty. Heels can’t be too high because I am already nearly  5’10”; can’t be too intimidating. It got me thinking about my role today as a woman on Earth.

While Donald Trump’s remarks on Access Hollywood, and frankly, his general regard for women may be vile, it is a little weird that anyone is so aghast and agog by it all. My sister aptly pointed out two things. Number one, none of the words or the actions (if the various allegations are true) of this man should come as a surprise. The internet is rife with examples of him saying truly tasteless things about women in general, and some women in particular. Number two, what guy hasn’t said something that Trump would call, “locker room” talk to a group of his peers about an object of sexual attraction? There are varying degrees of this and I would argue that statements that men might say such as, “Check out that fine piece of a**;” “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed;” or a simple appreciative “Nice legs,” are not as offensive as “I would grab her by the pussy,” but they still certainly objectify women.

These are both totally fair points.

The first point is boring, so I am not going to talk about it at all, but the second point is more interesting. How women are perceived and what is and is not okay to say to them and about them is ever evolving, and if Donald Trump has done one good thing in this campaign, it is to ignite a new conversation about feminism today.  Given that, as Trump aptly points out, Bill Clinton is no saint in this department, why was it less damaging to his political aspiration twenty years ago? Have we grown more aware or does it have to do with the fact that a woman is the opposing candidate and we don’t want to appear collectively sexist?

When I was growing up, I was certainly never told that I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be. The reason my father forgave my ineptitude at math was not because it was excusable because I was a girl, but because he himself suffered a similar ineptitude. Luckily, my mom kept the family’s books because she is a math wiz, and she insisted that I sold myself short on my abilities. She never expected less than top marks for me in math, and while I never got them, I never gave up on them because of my gender.

However, I was also regularly told how beautiful I was. My grandfather used to sing the theme to Miss America when I walked into the room from the time I was a young child. While my mother shuns make-up and loathes the color pink, I was encouraged by other family members when I wanted to play with Barbies, dress in frilly clothes and play with my grandmother’s lipstick. My physical appearance was always commented on, and I was always assured I was beautiful. This is not a sin. What parent wouldn’t praise their child? The issue is that girls are routinely praised for beauty and boys for brains. These campaigns by Verizon and EDF, addressed this phenomenon.

I have been watching Mad Men, and have loved watching the series progress, and as times change, watching the women and the men cope with the changes. Neither the male nor female characters know quite how to adapt. Where Peggy early on was mousy, self-conscious and a bit awkward, it turns out she was smart. She was NEVER the pretty one, but as the show continued, she developed confidence, dressed more nicely and became attractive. Her number one quality, however, was her brain, so she was rarely seen as the object of any male desire, and when she was, it was awkward for her. It was this big surprise that the smart girl could also be pretty. Her foil, the gorgeous and voluptuous Joan starts out as the sexy, but savvy secretary. She seems to surprise even herself when it turns out she is quite smart too. However, because she has large breasts and red hair, no man ever takes her seriously. There is a particularly cringe-worthy scene where Peggy and Joan are pitching to two corporate suits, but the men do nothing but drop double entendres, harass them and ogle Joan. They don’t for one second take either seriously. Peggy is dismissed as plain and dull, Joan as an objective of desire. Neither is seen for their intelligence. They get on the elevator, but rather than solidarity, Peggy tells Joan she will never be taken seriously because of how she dresses and Joan, in defense, takes great pride in being seen as the sexier of the two and belittles Peggy. Meanwhile, the young secretaries happily accept being called “honey,” and treated as nothing more than a skirt to take the men’s coats, deliver their messages and hide their mistresses from their wives…that is when they are not the mistresses themselves.

Women Hilary Clinton’s age and my mother’s age can remember this era. This continued blatantly until the 1970’s. Women typically chose less high-powered careers not because they were not able, but because it was a constant battle. Those that chose to forge into battle had to grow tough skin, tended to downplay their looks and as a result got labeled, a bitch, cold, heartless. Those that chose be less tough,  would be labeled emotional and would face being judged on their looks rather than merits.

A great show tackling this era is Good Girls Revolt, and Amazon offering. The women in the magazine office are relegated to roles as researchers. Their male counterparts get to write, although often the researchers actually write the article, but the man still gets the bi-line. The women decide to fight back. Season 1 ended with the announcement of their filing a formal complaint.

I did not grow up in that world. I remember in the early 90’s when I was an adolescent,  a woman named Anita Hill bravely stood up in front of a Senate judiciary committee and explained why a man making unwanted sexual advances was not okay.  That man today sits on the Supreme Court. His name is Clarence Thomas. Most of her claims were dismissed, but one has to ask why in the world would anyone put herself through that ordeal to make such false claims?

The women in Mad Men represented the tipping point in American history, and it was in 1975 that the term “sexual harassment” was first used. Anita Hill was not the first such case, but she was the most public. Women were finally speaking out against what had previously been considered normal and acceptable.

While they certainly did not LIKE harassment, women had to accept it and I am sure most men gave it little thought.  In the US, we are progressing, but some countries are making more progress than us, while others lag behind.

I lived in a Caribbean country for two years. Walking out of my house meant walking a sexual harassment gauntlet. I do not exaggerate. While I walked or rode my bicycle, I was continuously barraged by calls of “Hey baby” and “Good morning sexy white girl!” I heard such editorials as “I want to taste the white fish (or meat)” and “You a sexy thing.” I was demanded to perform: “Give me a smile pretty girl,” or “Show me some love, baby.” And sometimes I simply heard whistles, sharp intakes of breath or kissing noises. It was routine. It was expected. It was accepted. As a stranger in a strange land, I found it hard to just accept and talked about it regularly with people there. Some women agreed it was offensive and annoying. Others said it was culture and it didn’t bother them. Women often told me that they liked it, as it validated their beauty. The jury was split on whether it was appropriate, but I argued that objectifying women is on a continuum of oppression of women. This piece by a Caribbean woman really resonated.

I had to ask, where is the line in the sand drawn? When if ever, is culture an excuse to marginalize women? Female Genital Mutilation is practiced in some thirty countries worldwide. Not allowing women to leave the house unaccompanied and uncovered is a practice by some of the most extreme Muslim groups, notably, the Taliban.  I would imagine most reading this agree that those practices are horrific and a violation of the women’s rights.

Okay, so what about a husband beating his wife? In many countries this is still accepted, even by women.  I am not going to give these other sites traffic, but when I googled “when is it okay to hit your wife,” some blogs came up that I personally found offensive, but others in the US would perhaps disagree.

But let’s assume more people agree that beating your partner is not humane than not. What about rape? Is that ever okay? What about aggressive sexual assault, such as was described by the candidate for President? What about actually kissing, touching or grabbing a woman who has not indicated she wanted that to happen? Is that okay? We have a culture of campus sexual violence in this country with approximately 23% of undergraduate women experience some form of sexual assault! Somehow these educated young men seem to think it is acceptable to behave this way.

Some of you may find this offensive, but perhaps others will blame the woman or chalk it up to alcohol-induced shenanigans or just “boys being boys.”

What about words? Is it okay for men to cat-call a woman or to talk about grabbing her or to discuss her body part to a guy in a locker room? Or are we women just being “too sensitive” if these words bother us?

I was watching the Olympics over the summer with my father and was telling him about what I was reading about coverage of the female athletes. While more women competed in the 2016 Olympics than ever before, and more American women competed than men, women still weren’t given equal billing and still were treated more for their physical appearance or to whom they were married than their ability. When I mentioned this to my father, he said I was being overly sensitive and that women have come a long way. He suggested that rather than focusing on the inequities that still exist, we should be glad for all we have.

So, that’s it. Women, but down your battle axes and pull your bras from the fire. We have won. We can all now go to work and get paid less than men by 20% on average, be judged by our looks and be called a bitch if we stand up for ourselves knowing that we have won! I was very disheartened that my own father who encouraged my sister and I in athletics, always encouraged my career aspirations, never demands to know when I will get married and accepts my choice not to bear children would say that I was being too sensitive when I said that male commentators reducing female athletes to pretty girls was offensive. He also bemoaned the “Politically Correct” speech movement I have apparently bought in to. I was shocked.

I asked him to guess at how many times a stranger has decided to “grab me by the pussy.” He assumed it was zero, and was surprised to learn that two very adept men on two separate occasions years apart, reached up my skirt and cupped my vagina.

I did some further research, and just like women are not considered smart, they are largely not considered sporty. This research by Cambridge University analyzed the coverage of sports and saw a pattern of women athletes being described by their looks with comments on their status as wives and mothers while men are described primarily by their athletic prowess. I guess as has been said in defense of Donald Trump, “It’s just words,” right?

This whole discussion we are having on the news may be somewhat illuminating for some men who care to ponder what it might be like to walk a mile in a woman’s shoes. More than blisters and a sore back, they may also begin to feel uncomfortable. In their own skin.

When I lived in the same Caribbean country, at one point I was in charge of working with Americans new to the country. They asked me about social dress code. I told them that while the office was fairly conservative, it was perfectly acceptable to wear shorts, short skirts and sleeveless tops in public. However, I warned them, the more you show, the more unwanted attention you will get. Was I suggesting that women who dress provocatively “deserve” what they get? No, of course not, but I was being realistic.

And although it is not as constant in this country, as it is in some, we certainly haven’t reduced it to zero. Want to read a lot about it? 

I have had straight male friends tell me that they have no problem with gay guys, but wish they would leave them alone. They bemoan going to a gay club with friends and being flirted with despite telling the person they are straight. They complain that guys grab their ass or touch them when they don’t want them to. They don’t understand why Jim in accounting won’t take no for an answer when he asks him to grab a drink. I say, welcome to being a woman on planet Earth. While a straight man may be flattered by the attention, I would suggest he eventually would get annoyed by it at a minimum, possibly offended by it and perhaps even violent about it.

Most women I know ignore when possible, as it is the path of least resistance.  When I was routinely harassed on the street, that was my tactic, but it got tiresome and sometimes, some guy was the umpteenth guy to do it, and I snapped. On one occasion, I was on a bike and they were in a massive construction truck. They pulled up along next to me and honked and laughed when I nearly fell off my bike. They whistled and made kissing faces out the window. I told them I was not there for their amusement. They responded by speeding off shouting obscenities at me. I could still hear them at the end of the block calling me a “white cunt.” All because I told them I didn’t appreciate what they were doing.

We endure the too close hug of our fathers’ friends and neighbors. We suffer male doctors making light of our very real reproductive health issues. We gently brush off advances by professors and bosses not wanting to bruise fragile male egos, and make our life more difficult. We think very hard about what to wear to a job interview or first day of work to appear professional, attractive, but not too pretty or sexy. We walk with false confidence down dark streets or quiet parking garages to give off an air of “don’t fuck with me”. We endure being called a lesbian or frigid simply because we didn’t want to sleep with “him.” We walk blindly and deafly past men on the street who reduce us to nothing more than a receptacle for their penis rather than engage them and make a scene.

Yes, women have come a long way in this country. We can vote, we can own property, we can have a job, we can choose not to get married, we can marry who we choose, but we are not equal and being told that we are overreacting or being too sensitive when we call the sexism when we see it gets us nowhere.

For now, I will remain hopeful that as we grow as a population, as women continue to vocalize ills committed against them, as men learn to accept our voice, as the media continues to raise awareness, we will one day grow to truly treat one another with equal respect and dignity regardless of sex or gender. We all all be happy in a human’s world.

This is also published on Huffington Post.

 

 

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