The roll call of sexual predations continues to grow. Journalist and TV analyst Mark Halperin, co-author of the political bestseller,
Game Change (2010), is just one more saga of a powerful man acting badly. In the wake of recent revelations, the question keeps arising: Is this the moment when things change? Looking beyond the entertainment industry, let’s explore another reality. Since, as Anita Hill, who, in 1991, had her own public shaming over sexual harassment, recently wrote, “this is really the story of everyday women.” (Daily News, Oct. 15, 2017)
Throughout my book, Sisters in the Brotherhoods (2008), an oral history of blue-collar women entering all-male industries, these pioneers described numerous examples of sexual harassment. The dynamics of this workplace harassment were clearly about power and place — marking out territory and denying others the right to enter. These were the first women to enter traditionally all-male bastions — the FDNY; the carpenters’ shop at the NYC Board of Education; skilled trades’ apprenticeship programs; craft jobs for the telephone company’s exchanges. Examples of gross, often dangerous harassment abounded. To conclude the book and examine the distance between different generations, two young women entering the trades decades later told their stories. One described important changes, coming from the leadership of both the union and the company. The other described the pervasive and ongoing culture of sexual harassment.
Fast forward to January, 2013, when The New York Daily News broke front page stories (Jan. 27; Jan. 28) on the “racist and sexist slur-filled graffiti covering the inside of the new World Trade Center.” In response, a Port Authority spokeswoman issued a statement: “Such slurs are offensive and have no place at the World Trade Center or elsewhere. The Port Authority has zero tolerance for those who demonstrate intolerance.”
Since then, my file on sexual harassment of working women — those that are made public — continues to grow. Sexual harassment of women takes place when they work in isolation; when they are the sole female on the job, or close to it. It takes place in the public eye— waitresses are subjected to gross overtures from their customers, as recent stories and studies have shown. In the open — as The New York Times detailed the experiences of toll takers on the road. It takes place in the fields, where female farmworkers are assaulted and raped with impunity — one part of our harvests of shame. The litany is long.
One thing that can actually contribute to real change for everyday women in the workplace is men — their co-workers, oftentimes, their union brothers, speaking up, not staying silent — and complicit. Here’s how one of the young women in Sisters in the Brotherhoods explained it, after witnessing a typically disgusting episode.
“I was just so fed up. So I got up and walked away. I went to a pay phone. I called my apprentice coordinator. I was so disappointed … Somebody could just say: ‘Listen. Don’t do that.’ Nobody steps up. So I called and I said, ‘I just want somebody to talk to him. I don’t want to do it because that’s what he wants me to do.’ … So I return to work and one of the other mechanics says, ‘You know, that wasn’t right what he did out there.’ I said: ‘If it was me and a hundred other women, it wouldn’t be the same as if you said something. … Just you. It would mean everything.’ He said: ‘You’re right.’”
If you see something, say something.