Per a 2012 United Nations declaration, October 11 is the International Day of the Girl Child. Its observation supports more opportunity for girls, and increased awareness of gender inequality faced by girls worldwide.
Irony is certainly at play as we watch today’s news headlines and find details regarding this day representing female strength and accomplishment juxtaposed against the story of Harvey Weinstein and sordid tales of Hollywood behind the scenes. As a fifty year old woman I can tell you the story of Mr. Weinstein, and his alleged behavior, is not a new story.
What is new is how the world is reacting to it. Before now, there was an unspoken code passed from female generation to female generation. That code was transferred unknowingly through social cues and modeled behavior. Each woman may have learned the “code” at different times and in different ways, but the same facts were understood to be truths.
Whether you agree or disagree with the premise, my early life’s experience taught me the following truths of the unspoken “girl code”:
Women need a man to take care of them.
Women need to accept abuse because that is “how men are.”
Women must expect to be treated as a sexual object even in professional situations, and if that happens they need to accept it because that is just what it takes to advance your career.
If a woman speaks out against the male behavior detailed above they will essentially be blacklisted.
I watched my mother who in the 1970s had a successful teaching career and even earned her master’s degree. By all outward appearances she was successful. She was truly a modern woman joining the workforce and proving you could have it all. But at home it was a very different story. She had married my father, who was an incredibly abusive man, simply to get out of her family’s home that was headed by an abusive alcoholic father.
By the time she realized she had jumped from the ‘frying pan into the fire’ she believed it was too late to save herself. She accepted the sentence of living under the control of a man who somehow could never manage to hold a job. There were bruises, screaming, holes punched in walls and furniture destroyed. She would lock herself in her bedroom as the abuse of my father became directed at me. But once we all walked out of the front door all appearances were fine. This is how my understanding of the “girl code” began.
As a teen I sought to remove myself from the dysfunctional home as much as possible, and I began volunteering at a local nursing home. I enjoyed working with the geriatric population and found a happy place to spend my Saturdays. One day as I moved through empty basement corridors to get to an office located on the other side of the building I realized I was not alone. One of the college-age male workers from the kitchen appeared beside me. He proceeded to unzip his pants and start to pleasure himself saying things like “you know you want to touch it” and “get on your knees and do what you should.” I was 15 and didn’t really know what to do. I made an awkward excuse and ran back to the bingo room.
The next day the house phone rang. I answered to find the director of volunteers from the nursing home on the other end. Apparently, after I rejected the kitchen worker’s advances he decided to tell quite a different tale back in the kitchen, and I was asked never to return. I was told my conduct wasn’t appropriate. I attempted to defend myself, but she wouldn’t listen. I crumpled to a heap and sobbed. I believed I couldn’t tell my parents because they probably would believe the volunteer director over me. So I stayed silent.
A few years later I was home during a summer break from college looking for a job for a couple of months. So I turned to an employment agency that placed me in a temporary position doing telemarketing for a commercial photographer. When I reported for work I was greeted by the photographer, who was a man in his mid-thirties. He gave me a script, a list of phone numbers and pointed me to a desk with a phone. I familiarized myself with the script and began calling.
Eventually, I looked up from the script to find the photographer sitting on the floor staring at me. I had no idea how long he had been there. He realized I had finally noticed him and said “I am very attracted to you. I just got a new van. How about I back it into the studio garage and we can have some fun.” I froze and started to internally panic. He got up and went out to the van and started backing it into the studio. I grabbed my purse and keys and ran to my car. I drove away.
I went home and again didn’t know what to tell my parents or the agency. Eventually I told my mother who suggested I call the woman at the agency to complain about the client’s behavior and ask for a new assignment.So I did.
The women at the agency said that the client had already called to complain about me not doing my job and walking out. I tried to explain my side of the story and she wouldn’t listen calling me unprofessional and telling me that I may cause her to lose her client. Needless to say I was not given a new assignment.
My mother suggested I tell my father about the incident. It was awkward, but I did. His answer was “that’s just how the world is.” My mother agreed and it was never mentioned again. I accepted it as normal.
There are many more examples I could give, but instead of dwelling on how the world got to this point I choose to be part of the solution, and want to rewrite a healthier future for today’s young women. We need to think differently. We need to no longer accept unacceptable behavior, and that refusal must become the new normal as we work to break the silence that surrounds this issue.
I am the mother of a teenage daughter, who is on the cusp of determining her future path. Whatever direction she chooses I never want her to be afraid to speak her mind, or to be afraid she will lose opportunities if she doesn’t succumb to a bully’s demands. I want her to be empowered to say no to unhealthy people and behavior, while realizing her full potential. If we can work to make this a reality for all young women what an amazing world this would be.