I had an interesting conversation with a good friend a while ago about feminism. I appreciated hearing her views because it caused me to scrutinize my own ideas and values. I have decided that my experiences have taught me that women are still in need of a voice, a place, and empowerment, especially in the public sphere. Here are some of those experiences. I don’t claim that everybody has the same experiences or that everybody should agree with me. I do claim that these are my truths.
In fourth grade, I had an excellent male teacher who pushed me and encouraged me. He was tough, and I learned much from him. He pushed me to increase my memorizing capabilities, and to become an excellent speller. I won the fourth grade spelling bee. However, at the end of the year, when he chose the class’s “top student,” he told my mother that it couldn’t be me because I was a girl. He said this honor always had to go to a male student. I’m still not sure why. I recently found an essay I had written about this in seventh grade. That many years later, it still bothered me.
In tenth grade, I had a “boyfriend” who mostly walked me to class and talked to me on the phone. We never went on a formal date. One day during our regular lunch together with our group of friends, he took an orange, peeled it, and then without warning, smashed it in my face. He laughed and thought he was funny. I left and never spoke to him again. This is only one of the demeaning and violent incidents with him.
During my junior year of high school, I had a boyfriend who convinced me that I was his. He worked on this slowly, like a snake. When he left to serve a two-year mission for our church, he spied on me through my friends and tried to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to date while he was gone. (This is the mildest version of this period of my life.)
During these high school years, my mother and my step-father had difficulties. (Well, they always had difficulties.) Their marriage was continuously unhappy and contentious. When my mother spoke to a male church leader about some of the problems they were having, the leader told her that it was her fault and that she should be a better wife. Perhaps some of that was true, but it seemed awfully sexist to tell a wife that she should sleep with her husband more in order to curb his pornography addiction.
When I worked my first job, I had a boss who often reprimanded me harshly, although I was the most obedient and competent of the clerical staff. I think he thought it was funny to upset me.
At that same job when I sat at the front desk, a creepy mail man often visited and came around my desk, trying to touch me and smiling a slimy smile. When I complained about him and his unwanted touching, he was removed from that mail route, but not fired or reprimanded. He continued to plague all of the young secretaries in the building.
Once when I visited a restaurant with a group of coworkers, both male and female, the man who took my order repeated it in a high-pitched and nasally tone meant to be a funny imitation of my voice. I was twenty-two years old at the time. It upset me, and I felt attacked and demeaned. To his credit, that man realized what he had done and visited our table later, quietly issuing an apology to me. (Unfortunately, that apology turned on the water works, in front of all of my male coworkers, including my mean boss, previously mentioned.)
When I worked a temp job during my husband’s internship in San Francisco, a coworker spent most of his day asking me out on dates. I constantly refused him. He would not take “no” for an answer and instead took to sneaking up to my desk and stroking my hair or putting his arm around me without warning. He did not see me as a person, but an object. He was eventually fired after I complained and wrote a letter about the situation (at my supervisor’s urging) to the corporate headquarters. Apparently, he had been doing this to many of the company’s young women, and the previous solution had been to transfer him to different branches.
When I was promoted to be an editor at my first “real” job, the interview involved hinting at asking me when I planned to start a family. The man interviewing me was concerned that I would not stay in the job for long and violated laws by asking me those personal questions. Perhaps if that corporation had wanted me to stay, they would have offered me flex time or work-from-home hours after I did eventually become a mother. But they refused.
I know in talking to female classmates and friends, many of them have similar experiences. Of course, we all have good experiences too, but in what ways do these workplace and classroom problems that hinge on gender create difficulties for everybody? Is there a better way?
What are your experiences?