it would be obvious
But histories and
Acceptance is one thing
righting a wrong
what brings us back around to an objective
During the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Confirmation, I was working as a receptionist in a law office in Toledo, Ohio. I was glued to the hearings. Every woman in America was Christine Blasey Ford that week. We were raw. One of the lawyers I worked for liked to come out of his office, sit in the lobby where my desk was, and strike up conversations. I was a captive audience, but almost always “had to go to the bathroom” after a while of him bloviating at me because I simply could not bear it. This day, he opined about Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. He insisted that what she described was just “regular high school party stuff.” He compared her experience to being a guy and having someone draw a penis on his face after he passed out. This lawyer, by the way, had been disciplined for misconduct with a client. I was disgusted but not surprised that he thought rape and attempted rape were just casual things that happen at parties. It’s not like I hadn’t grown up watching John Hughes movies. We all thought that. That’s the problem.
That day, rather than excusing myself to the bathroom, I told him I was finished with this conversation; that he could leave now. I added that he should do all the women in his life a favor by choosing to be quiet and listen. He acted like he heard me. But, he continued to say things like, “You’re not being inclusive.” Incredulous, he finally said, “I’m not going to just not talk.” He could not fathom being silenced. And now, I say to him: How does it feel?
A day or two later, while I was stocking the mini-fridge with bottled water, I encountered another attorney who had a meeting in our office. He had a reputation for using flowery language. Flowery even for a lawyer. He was a snappy dresser with very intentional hair. A true gentleman and charmer. As he walked out of a conference room and saw me on the floor he said, “I like to see a woman down on her knees hard at work.” He was the same attorney who would throw a check across my desk and make a kissing noise as he said, “give that to the red-head.” He was referring to the woman attorney with whom he was working on a case. I required him to tell me her name. I thought of the army of female law clerks in all of our courts, and how they were on the receiving end of his kissing noises, all day, every day. And how, for years, people marveled at his eloquence and class. It made me sick.
In a Washington Post editorial that same week, Connie Chung addressed Christine Blasey Ford directly and told her own story of being molested and raped by her family doctor, the one who delivered her. In a flash, I was immediately reminded of the physical therapist who found his way under my shirt, between my boobs, and very close to my nipples while treating a muscle strain in my shoulder. I had forgotten about it until that moment. The hearings were uncovering traumas, why or whether we did or did not remember them, forcing us to re-examine, and in most instances, interrogate how we responded to every single one. In the case of the physical therapist, I could not believe it was happening. I was in a state of frozen shock as I asked myself if this was appropriate or necessary. At age 15, my family doctor, who was also my Dad’s next-door neighbor and friend, instructed me to take off my shirt to examine my thyroid, which is in the throat. I knew something wasn’t right, then. I felt understandably powerless. What was my excuse as a 33-year-old woman? I knew there was no reason for this man’s hands to be between my breasts to treat my shoulder. I was simply frozen. Frozen with doubt. Frozen without anything to say to stop him.
Kavanaugh was post -“#metoo”. I felt ripped off. Why did I have to keep having these conversations? Why weren’t men smarter? Had they ever heard of “reading the room”? Where was Toledo’s reckoning? Had local men not gotten the memo? Did they watch the news? Had they not seen Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby escorted to and from court as perpetrators and convicts? Matt Lauer lost his job! Where were our “disgraced former-so-and-so’s?”
Accountability stories in the media were not sinking in as cautionary tales. Local male “leaders,” prominent and political position holders, regular-Joe Attorneys, and all the rest saw no real reason to change their behaviors. They just kept on saying disgusting things and rubbing all the shoulders they could get their hands on. Women were still bobbing and weaving around the same bad actors abusing their power to humiliate and violate us.
Minus a few quiet resignations and many quietly filed reports at the insistence of someone “taking one for the team,” there was no long-lasting change. A known harasser would be asked to leave one committee or board, only to pop back up on another one with a whole new pool of women to victimize. No one had been made to stand as an example. Men were not resigning in shame. Women were, for being the whistle-blowers and report-makers. We were fired for not meeting fundraising goals. In reality, we were spending 10 hours of a 20-hour-a-week job documenting ongoing harassment from a Board member and trying to convince the President to remove a constant threat to the staff. We were eased off of work schedules after reporting demeaning comments. Those complaints would go undocumented, and when re-visited, the victim would be required to defend whether remarks were of a “sexual nature.” Some of us were having to be physically protected by trusted co-workers when the harasser was around. This wasn’t out at a bar on a Friday. This was during our work week, or at social service events. Volunteers were being unwantedly touched, hugged, and kissed, not having been warned about a predator in their midst. It was never ending. There was no satisfaction of wrongs being righted. There was still the constant refrain, “that’s just how he is” or “but, he does such good work, helps so many people” or, “he definitely sent those text messages, but the guy is a damn fine lawyer.” And more than ever, nothing was sacred. Long-trusted family friends didn’t think to maybe strike their jokes about enforcing prima nocta with their son’s fiance. Maybe let the filter catch that one. Since, ya know… the reckoning.
Here I was, expecting men around me to begin to see the women in their lives as worth the time to acknowledge this potential new dynamic. I was so wrong; and made to feel like I was making mountains out of molehills. I was accused of needlessly alienating people or being intolerant. Still, whatever I was doing wasn’t working. Nothing had changed. The national fallout was all well and good. But, locally we were still supposed to stay quiet and take it.
Then one day, I connected with another woman about a shared experience. The two of us got angry and disgusted together. We listened to each other’s stories, drew parallels, and marveled at similarities. Anyone who knows anything about how change is made knows that it usually starts with two women coming together in a shared experience. Here we are. The time has come for the tangible results of all of this digging up and re-living. Women in Toledo didn’t do it all for nothing. There is something we can do with all of this anger and frustration. We can take down these sexual harassers. We can change the culture.
Cami Roth Szirotnyak and I share a former harasser with no doubt hundreds of other women in Toledo. We don’t want to see him on any more committees. We want him to be taken down off the shoulders of people aware of his history of meaningful work, and we want him recognized as a predator. We want people to acknowledge his proximity to vulnerable populations as a known and documented harasser. We want him to be a disgraced former so-and-so. We want an example of real consequences that might give others pause before they make that next disgusting comment, or touch us without our consent. We want to feel safe in our workplaces and not have to persuade decision-makers to protect us.
The future of “On Drowning Rats: How to Take Down a Sexual Harasser”
will tell the story of how Candy Broth and Girl Parts Publishing & Productions build and test a model simultaneously. Our readers will join us in defining and discovering how to hold local harassers accountable who have long-held positions of power and influence. The time is ripe to have this public conversation and do what we can to make our professional community safer for women.
In the name of valuing our work, time, emotional toil, and toll, we humbly request that, if you are in a position to do so, show your support in the form of Patreon contributions. We will gather and offer resources as well as publish pieces to distribute throughout the community. We will establish a system where we see results when we call out our harassers. We will create a culture where women need not question our sense of self or existence in spaces we have every right to inhabit.
Rachel E. Richardson is the CEO of Girl Parts Publishing & Productions.