Have you heard about the woman who confronts men who “catcall” to her in public? She tells them, “Women don’t like to be talked at [sic] by strangers.” One guy replied, “We come from Ohio where we holler at women.” (Don’t worry, friends from the Buckeye State, I won’t let one man’s misogyny confirm the suspicions of Michiganders.) I confess that I was jealous. No one catcalls to me. But, why would I care about anyone’s crass behavior? My mother always said that if I ignored the bullies they would stop. “Don’t give them an audience!” Some nuts are tougher to crack.
In 1977, I found myself at loose ends. My late husband, the Veterinarian, was beginning his professional career in suburban Washington, DC, and I had recovered from my hysterectomy. What to do, what to do? Should I go to graduate school? Law school? Drama school? Focus on writing? Decisions, decisions.
I pulled out the help-wanted section of The Washington Post and saw a well-known insurance broker’s ad for a customer service representative. I had worked for an insurance agency in college. I could make some easy money, meet new people, and try on the life of a career woman. My interview with the motherly office manager went nicely, and I was hired on the spot. Could I start the following Monday? Certainly.
On that very first day in my new job, dressed in my tasteful, mint green polyester pantsuit, one of the agents called me into his office for a “get-acquainted” chat.
“Hey! Come on in and shut the door,” he was at least 6’3”, pale, and soft in the middle. The blinds in his office were drawn, the only light coming from a heavily shaded desk lamp. He motioned to a chair across from him, where I sat while we exchanged pleasantries. He was 32 with a wife and children. The son of a minister, he graduated from a little private East Coast college of which I had never heard. I was 25, from the Midwest, wife of a veterinarian, and graduate of a Big-Ten college of which he had heard. Then, there was nothing left to say, so, he told me a joke. It was filthy, and I was thoroughly pissed.
The comedic nuances of Shakespeare, Swift, and Monty Python were not lost on me, and, after all, this was the era of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon of its time (without the BDSM). I enjoyed a non-demeaning joke told in an appropriate environment about as well as most people who I knew. Still, strangers didn’t tell other strangers dirty jokes unless they were professional comedians, and a gentleman never told one to an unaccompanied lady. [Advice to your sons: According to the Daughter, that remains a major turn-off. Apparently, a gentleman still doesn’t!]
I remembered that Ann Landers advised that feigned ignorance would be an effective response to offensive jokes, theorizing that the offender would be too deflated to repeat it.
“Oh,” I demurred. “Would you tell me that again? I think I must have missed something.”
“It’s—uh—it’s—,” he stammered, “it’s not important. Let’s get back to work.”
“Well, thanks for the welcome!” I smiled sweetly and walked out into the fluorescent brightness of the main office.
Instead of playing a Doris Day career girl, as I had naïvely imagined, I was navigating the last, dark days of Mad Men. I was a novelty, the first female college graduate they had ever hired. My favorite co-workers were two young women, a sweet newlywed with photos of her adorable Yorkies on her desk and a wisecracker with a dyed black bouffant hairdo, who happily swore, guzzled coffee, chain-smoked, and coughed incessantly. My vocabulary acquired the “f-word” from her—which I used only in my car while driving on the Capital Beltway, of course.
One day, I was standing alone at the copier, screened by a bank of file cabinets. Mr. Jokester passed behind me on the way to his office and grabbed my behind. I, a “liberated” woman, was shocked. I stood immobile until he was gone, and the copier stopped. That night I told my husband.
“Next time, kick him in the nuts,” the Veterinarian recommended.
Over the next two years, Mr. Jokester was promoted to office manager, replacing the demoted woman who had hired me, and his reign of terror began. Everything I did was wrong; I wasn’t polite enough to clients; I didn’t work fast enough. The other agents, older and gentlemanly, were sympathetic to my plight and ran interference with him on my behalf.
Again, I found myself groped at the copier. This time, I was ready. (No, I didn’t kick him in the nuts, although I still snicker aloud at the idea.) I whirled around, caught his eye, and gave him my “Don’t-touch-me-again-or-it-will-be-the-last-time-you-ever-touch-anything” look. He turned scarlet in annoyance and stomped off to his office with clenched fists, like a chastened little boy. He never touched me again, but his complaints about my work performance escalated.
Finally, after enduring one last incident of what today would be prosecuted as sexual harassment, I called my husband. “You don’t need that crappy job,” he said. I hung up and marched into the office of agency’s president and quit.
“Oh, Suzanne,” Mr. President began, “we don’t want to lose you.”
“I can’t work with Mr. Jokester any longer. He’s demoralizing the staff.” I detailed how Mr. Jokester’s new policies were hampering the entire staff’s performance, but I didn’t mention the physical harassment. In those days, crass personal behavior toward women was considered—get ready for it, younger women— crass but acceptable. Not by me, but I knew it was pointless to expect this management to do anything about it.
“Would you be willing to meet tomorrow for lunch in Our Fancy Executive Dining Room with Mr. Jokester and Mr. Good-Ol’-Boy (the vice-president and son of the company’s founder), so we can iron this out?”
“Yes, I will, but I won’t change my mind.” I wanted the opportunityto tell them all to go to hell. I packed up my desk and made my farewells to co-workers, suddenly realizing that I was the only woman in the office who had the resources to leave its toxic environment
At the appointed lunch hour, I arrived in my smart black suit and pearls. Mr. President was already at the table. Mr. Good-Ol’-Boy came shortly thereafter, having been torn from a day of sport-fishing on his yacht. Mr. Jokester arrived 30 minutes late, in his mirrored aviator sunglasses, which he wore throughout the entire meal and spoke not a word. He didn’t even order food. No way in hell-on-earth would I return to that office.
“So,” began Mr. President, as the lunch dishes were cleared, “how can we convince you to stay with us?”
“I just cannot stay. My husband and I are ready to set up our own veterinary practice, so it’s time to move on.”
“I sure would hate ta seeya makin’ a mistake,” slurred Mr. Good-Ol’-Boy, swirling the ice in his empty whisky glass. “I remember when I was workin’ for — “
“I’m not making a mistake,” I interrupted and took a deep breath of courage. “I’ve enjoyed working with the other agents and all the staff but just look at him. He hasn’t even taken off his sunglasses. How am I supposed to deal with that?”
“Oh, that’s just the way he is,” laughed Mr. Good-Ol’-Boy, “He don’t mean anything by it.”
“No, thank you,” I pushed back from the table and stood in my smart black suit and pearls. Guess which one of the three men didn’t shake my hand or escort me to the elevator?
Respect for others and simple good manners are in even shorter supply now than they were in 1977. The Daughter is shocked that sexual harassment wasn’t always a punishable offensive in the workplace. I’m thrilled that today’s women have recourse to such demeaning behavior. And as far as responding to the myopic assessment of every jerk on the street, I have more important problems. Such crass behavior has never kept me down. I always walk with my “Don’t-even-think-about-it” expression on my face, which has always worked for me.
On second thought, maybe it works too well; it would be nice to be gently appreciated. A door held. A seat offered. I wouldn’t even mind a quiet whistle or discreet “Looking good!” The shrew who lives in my head reminds me that the odds of that happening to me at this stage of my life are slim-to-none. But, who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo gloria!
July 30, 2014 at 7:41 am
Suzanne this story has hit me right where I live. When this same type of thing happened to me I was speechless and Helpless. I did not dare discuss these things outside of work. Even having a far superior intellect I really did not know what to do. I actually needed my jobs.
July 30, 2014 at 8:24 am
I was prompted to write this after talking to my daughter about the woman who was outraged by men yelling at her on the street. In our conversation, she was surprised to learn that laws protecting women against sexual harassment in the workplace didn’t exist 30 years ago. Most women our age were raised to live in a world where people were respectful of each other and then went out into a completely different world. Fortunately, my mother also passed on to me her “no-tolerance-for-nonsense” attitude, which sometimes gets me into trouble but usually saves me.