by Carol A Westbrook
In what has become an overwhelming social movement, women are coming forward to tell their stories of sexual assault. "Me too," they say. #MeToo, they tweet. Though I also want to express my solidarity, I cannot say "Me too," as I don't have a story to share. I was never the victim of sexual misconduct; never had a boss hit on me; never faced the expectation of sex in return for a job or a promotion; never assaulted in any way.
On the other hand, when I was a young woman, discrimination was so prevalent it was ignorable. Putting up with discrimination was the price one had to pay for trying to make it in a man's world, for trying to do something with your life other than become a subservient wife and mother. Social attitudes were very different then. It was the 60's.
We women of the 60's had more rights and privileges than did our mothers and grandmothers– we had the vote, and a few more property rights–but we were by no means legally equal to men. Birth control was available, but abortions were not. There were many jobs which excluded women. Pregnant women had to quit when they started to "show." Married women lost control of their finances, and sometimes their bodies, too–marital rape was not even a crime in some states! Married women couldn't hold credit cards in their own name. In the 60's it was okay for a man to date his secretary or pressure his intern for sex. It may have been ill advised or downright coercive, perhaps, but not illegal.
Women were regarded as inferior members of the human race, not able to do men's work, and needing a man's protection so they could fulfill their God-given role of wife and mother. Some women accepted this role, but others of us felt that it kept us back from our full potential. We were called "feminists," but we were just women trying to carve out our own place in a man's world.
And it was a difficult world for a woman to make it. Medicine, my chosen career, was not blatantly unfriendly to women, but discrimination existed. It was just more subtle than in other professions. At that time, medicine was an exclusive men's club, and women were not members. Take, for example, the surgical locker room, where the (male) surgeons, interns, and med students changed into their hospital scrubs and discussed difficult cases. Female med students? We had to use the nurse's locker room, and wear the (female) scrub nurses' pink cotton dresses–it was just assumed that all surgeons were men. Or take the doctors' golf outing–men only–where serious business was discussed. I'll never forget the time when my department head mentioned that his best clinical consultations with colleagues happened in the men's room. And there was the residency interview where I was asked if I "had a bun in the oven." You just had to grin and bear it, and do your best to be as good–or better–than your male colleagues.
The sixties was the time of sexual revolution, and some men took this as a sign that it was okay to sleep with your employees. But to us feminists, this had to be avoided at all costs, even it meant quitting a good job or avoiding some career choices entirely. A woman who slept with her boss risked losing all professional credibility, as she will always be regarded as "sleeping her way to the top." Even worse, when the affair is over and he tires of her, it is the woman whose career, grades, or employment will suffer–not her supervisor's. There is always some element of coercion, even if the woman agrees to the affair or she–naively–initiated it.
A lot of men in power did not recognize the difference between "consensual" and "coercive," and many still do not. I am discouraged when I hear stories of sexual coercion, harassment, and abuse perpetrated by men who should know better–men who grew up in the sixties, or even their sons. I'm referring to high ranking politicians, including current and former presidents, movie stars, producers and others who take advantage of their intern's starry-eye admiration and naiveté; men who expect sexual favors in return for jobs; men who treat women as sexual objects, not individuals.
I am saddened that women of the younger generation still have to put up with this humiliation. Perhaps we early feminists could have done more, though in our defense we had bigger battles to fight. We couldn't complain of harassment on the job if we didn't have a job at all! Since the time that I entered the workforce, women have made remarkable gains in job equality, pay, and opportunity. But some things have still not changed, and it saddens me that even today, women have to make career choices based on avoiding unwanted sexual advances — or on acquiescing.
Yet they do. Sexual attitudes toward women have lagged behind their economic gains. All too often, women are still judged first by their looks, not by who they are. Not only is it humiliating, it is detrimental to one's career. In the workplace women would like to be judged as equals, not as potential mates. Is that so difficult?
Apparently it is. Though it is true that men and women are biologically driven to view each other as sexual objects, society imposes a context where
that drive is appropriate–and the workplace is not one. It is time that these contexts are clearly accepted and understood by all. That is what #MeToo is all about. The sixties sensitized me, and hardly a day goes by in which I am not aware of sexual discrimination. I hope it will be easier for my daughter.