The daily dispatches about sexual harassment and abuse have unleashed a parade of celebrity perp walks, howls of denial, shame-faced confessions, moronic mewlings (“How am I supposed to know the line between flirting and harassment?”) and — we knew it was coming — “The War on Men!”
Good people are shocked — shocked! — to discover that women face a potential minefield every time we walk down the street, or sit in a library, or have coffee with a male supervisor or co-worker or coach or teacher or uncle. Most of the time, we ignored the danger because most of the time, it was okay. Nothing bad happened.
But when something bad did happen, nine times out of 10 we kept it to ourselves because anyone who complained, or called the police, or contacted HR or hired a lawyer was branded hysterical, ugly, a bitch or just a humorless scold who couldn’t take a joke.
Put it behind you.
Don’t rock the boat.
If he didn’t touch you, it’s no big deal.
That’s show business.
That’s high tech.
That’s women’s gymnastics.
The brave few who stood up to this crap were accused of exaggerating or lying, counseled to let it go or settle out of court. Most of the time, they were shamed or threatened into silence about the unwanted backrubs and jokes you would never tell your mother, about cameras in the women’s bathroom, pussy-grabbing and the soul-crushing violation that is rape.
People can pretend to be surprised but Shakespeare laid it all out in “Measure for Measure,” a 400-year-old courtroom drama. A judge named Angelo condemns Claudio to death for the capital crime of premarital sex, disregarding the fact that this couple was engaged to be married and the fiancée was pregnant.
Pleas for clemency fall on deaf ears until Claudio’s sister, Isabel, begs for his life. Angelo is overcome with lust and tells Isabel, who is about to about to become a nun, either she surrenders her virginity to him or her brother dies. After arguing and pleading to no avail, Isabel threatens to expose Angelo’s heinous bargain. His reply comes right out of Roy Moore’s playbook, albeit with a much better vocabulary.
“Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life
My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny.”
I’m glad for the current explosion of public outrage about the misogyny that is baked into our legal system, religious texts and popular culture. It’s good for the body politic though nothing close to a cure. More like an enema, which, alas, provides only a short-term benefit.
Remember, it was just over a year ago that Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape was released to the public. He was excoriated and denounced; it seemed his goose was cooked and good riddance. But the 12 women who lined up to testify about his transgressions were dismissed as bimbos.
The White House is inhabited by a man who got away with sexual crimes and misdemeanors with the approval — tacit and/or explicit — of the Alt-Right, the Republican Party, Wall Street, a lot of Evangelical Christians and voters who wanted to “send a message.”
The misogynist overtones of that message prompted the single largest protest in the history of the world. There were women’s marches in every state and on every continent, with speeches, pink hats and some memorable signage: “Melania, are you okay?”
Of course, that great global convocation of women did not change the world or form a PAC within the next few news cycles, so the pundits predictably predicted that the passion and energy of the women’s march would wither away like the hapless 99-percenters who camped out on Wall Street and vanished into the night.
But that’s not what happened. The harasser-in-chief unleashed a force that continues to gather strength. Dozens of brave women are breaking the silence about powerful creeps and criminals who had hounded and hurt them. Their example inspired a tsunami of solidarity under the hashtag “MeToo.”
In 2016, an organization called “She Should Run” got 1800 inquiries from women about how to seek elective office. In the first year of Trump, that number rose to more than 15,000. Of the 15 seats gained by Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly, women candidates won 11. A few weeks ago, the Boston City Council added two more women for a total of six women out of 13 members — make that six women of color.
And by the way, the sexual abuse story would not be leading the news day after day if the victims of these A-list abusers were mostly black and brown, even though women of color — especially the poor — are especially vulnerable. The immigrant chambermaid in a four-star hotel has absolutely no redress if her supervisor gets handsy or worse. Which makes it even more important to keep blowing this whistle long and loud enough so that hotel supervisors will think twice and hotel management will make policy and hotel chambermaids organize.
When I was getting ready to head out for the Boston Women’s March last Jan. 21, I found an enamel pin I’d saved from the early 1970s. That “Sisterhood is powerful” symbol was a just memento I thought I’d never wear again.
It doesn’t look like an antique anymore.