By Arlene Johnson
Dress more modestly. Don’t smile or laugh to the degree that it could be taken as flirtation. Avoid “this one” or “that one.” Don’t walk home alone. Don’t go out to drinks or dinner with the co-worker or classmate. Don’t meet in rooms with closed doors. This is the list of oppressions that women are read with religious rigor. These are the rules of the road. This is the outrage. Charles M. Blow, New York Times, Nov. 19, 2017
Anita Hill led the way for all of us in 1991 when she “dared” to speak out about sexual harassment by her former boss, Clarence Thomas, to members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee. Thomas had been nominated for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. She was grilled, cross-examined and lectured to by members of the Senate Judiciary committee, consisting of all white males, in a publicly televised hearing that electrified the country at the time. Hill testified to repeated sexual harassment incidents by Thomas, her former boss at the U.S. Department of Education. She was forced to recount them in graphic detail. Tragically, most people did not believe Hill. She was portrayed in much of the media as a liar and a traitor to her race. Her credibility was shattered, despite the fact that she was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and an honors graduate of Yale Law School. After those Senate hearings, there was a groundswell of women who were inspired by Anita Hill’s courage and thousands of them began to file sexual harassment complaints.
Nothing seems to have changed in the workplace for women in 26 years. In today’s climate of rampant sexual harassment precipitated by allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein, it feels like the damn has burst and each day new revelations about well-known men around the globe have grabbed the headlines. However, this time around it feels quite different. Hundreds of women are summoning the courage to speak out, speak their truth about what has happened to them and as one of my colleagues said recently, there is strength in numbers. As UU women we need to find the courage to call out perpetrators of sexual harassment whether it is in our workplace, our universities, or our congregations.
Last month YouGov, an international polling firm, surveyed people in 5 western countries about what constituted sexual harassment and concluded that “there is no clear consensus on exactly which behaviors cross the line. Instead, people in different countries and age groups appear to use very different definitions.” They concluded that employers need to be much more explicit about the boundaries of acceptable behavior to ensure a comfortable work environment for women.
Robert Lipsyte, a former sports columnist for the New York Times and correspondent for CBS and NBC news in a recent article maintains that sexual harassment starts with “a jock culture” that boys are exposed to in school. “Real men are tough, aggressive, take risks, and trust no one who isn’t on their team, especially women,” and this continues in the military, business, medicine, the law, and beyond.
He concludes that “the hard job for all of us male bystanders isn’t to rescue women, but to rescue other men from their own worst behavior and so prevent abuse in the first place, be it by personal intervention or the more difficult political mission of passing an Equal Rights Amendment.”
It is long overdue for this toxic environment to end.
I came to know Anita Hill after the Murrah Building bombing in Ok. City, spring 1995, when she was raising funds for the families of children injured or killed in the Murrah Building nursery. As chair of the Oklahoma Women’s Network, I worked with her to hold a fundraising event in Tulsa.