Laurie Toby Edison

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Harassment Then and Now

The fantastic Lynne Murray, guestblogging:

Several blogs have picked up the story of this dinosaurly old guy. In giving him their Dirty Old Man of the Year award, Feministing remarks:

“William Donald Schaefer—former governor of Maryland and current State Comptroller—has created quite a stir this week due to some really gross sexist behavior …This was followed by his feelings [of] being hurt when questioned about it.”

At a State Board of Public Works Meeting, current Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s 24-year old administrative aide brought the 84-year old Schaefer a cup of tea. Schaefer watched her ass intently as she walked away, then motioned for her to come back and said, “Walk again,” in front of the other 100 people present.

Rather than being about sex per se, I think this is about power and inhibition—specifically how those with more power don’t feel obligated to restrain themselves socially.

When questioned, Schaefer said:

“This little girl” should be “happy that I observed her going out the door.” He then claimed that he’s the one who should be offended for being asked about it.”

His habit of calling women “little girls” actually extends to his office, where women who have worked for him in the past haven’t been offended, says Louise L. Hayman, Schaefer’s aide. “It sounds like he’s demeaning you, but what he’s really saying is he respects you.” she continued.

When a man can publicly report his “admiration” (read “arousal”) toward an underling in a large public forum, it’s because he sees the power equation as so skewed towards himself that any attention he pays to a subordinate is a compliment. I would be willing to bet that he has some other method of demonstrating his power over his male subordinates—overt verbal insults or some sort of men’s restroom status game. Clearly the world has changed some since Schaefer last ventured out of his protective power sack.

I can’t imagine working in this guy’s office, but I understand his aide’s reaction. Many young women now being harassed hold a simple view, which is essentially, “This is not fair. I’m going to call him on it.” I can’t argue with that, but I don’t expect that to be an easy road. Some harassers can drag you down with them, even if you win. At the same time, many other women, perhaps particularly those of my generation (I’m 57), have experienced “hands-on” sexual harassment, grabbing, pinching, “sleep with me or you’re fired,” type stuff, at a time when there was nowhere to go with a complaint. As a result, some victims have developed very effective passive-aggressive strategies. Unfortunately, these are covert and may not seem heroically admirable. Also because of class and generational barriers in the workplace, these strategies are seldom shared, and if offered, rarely followed. They are the strategies of those with little power, who must nonetheless survive and continue to work.

I witnessed this contrast clearly when I watched a harassment claim in the ‘90s filed by a young woman lawyer against a senior—with a disastrous outcome for all involved. When I described the situation to a legal secretary in her 60s, she was so shocked that she burst into laughter at the idea of suing over such behavior (which was offensive, but purely verbal). It was so mild compared with what she had dealt with throughout her early working life that suing seemed absurd to her. This secretary’s own way of dealing with overbearing partners was professional and effective, although not for everyone. It involved getting a death grip on the gentleman’s In-Box and gradually twisting until the required respect was offered.

<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/sexual+harrassment" rel="tag">Sexual Harrassment</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/sexism" rel="tag">Sexism</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/feminism" rel="tag">feminism</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/Body+Image" rel="tag">Body Image</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/Body+Impolitic" rel="tag">Body Impolitic</a><br />

3 Responses to “Harassment Then and Now”

  1. Debbie Says:

    Lynne, thanks so much for posting this! It’s an extremely important topic, and I think you nailed it.

    The one thing I would add is that there are in fact men and women, of Schaefer’s generation, and mine (which is yours) and younger, who honestly do think that “Walk again,” is a compliment. My personal belief is that this is in part because we are so starved for genuine compliments in general, and genuine compliments about our bodies in particular, and in part from socialization to that very power imbalance you describe.

    I think part of what I’m trying to say here is that Schaefer’s aide may be telling a partial truth when she says “he really means he respects you,” either because he does partially mean that, or because she has convinced herself that he does. None of this, of course, excuses his behavior; it’s just a wry twist on how we can participate in our own harassment.

  2. Lynne Murray Says:

    That’s an aspect I hadn’t thought of–but totally true, Debbie!

    Oddly enough your comment brought up for me that one way to deal with harrassment may be to cultivate enough confidence to “accept it as a compliment” and “not accept it as an exercise of power.” You’d have to think on your feet to reply back to being put on the spot and usually such guys pick the most naive victims on purpose. Also realistically, he did have power over her, and too much talking back could backfire. But just as an example, when the guy asked her to walk again, she might have said, “Did you want another cup of tea already, sir? Usually people drink the first one before they want another.” It also would have helped if she could have been forewarned, because this guy really appears to be a notorious lech.

  3. Financial Times Says:

    Lynne, thanks so much for posting this! It’s an extremely important topic, and I think you nailed it.

    The one thing I would add is that there are in fact men and women, of Schaefer’s generation, and mine (which is yours) and younger, who honestly do think that “Walk again,” is a compliment. My personal belief is that this is in part because we are so starved for genuine compliments in general, and genuine compliments about our bodies in particular, and in part from socialization to that very power imbalance you describe.

    I think part of what I’m trying to say here is that Schaefer’s aide may be telling a partial truth when she says “he really means he respects you,” either because he does partially mean that, or because she has convinced herself that he does. None of this, of course, excuses his behavior; it’s just a wry twist on how we can participate in our own harassment.

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