It’s fall 1991. I am a senior in college and feminist is a word I have been using for less than a year. My roommates and I rush home from class every day to witness the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings. An African-American woman, who use to work for him, has accused him of sexual harassment. The all-white panel of senators who grill her seem to believe she is guilty. My friends and I are confused. Guilty of what? She is the one accusing him of harassing her. It’s surreal, this moment. However, we are excited that maybe sexual harassment in the workplace will be made illegal.
While I was only 22 at the time, I had already been sexually harassed. While working at the Norfolk Yacht & Country Club as a waitress (we didn’t use the gender-neutral term “server” back then) two years prior, my assistant manager cornered me in the dark dining room between the lunch and the dinner shift and pointed to his leg to highlight where the outline of his penis was. I complained to my manager, a woman, who told me he didn’t mean anything by it.
I then spent the next two summers waiting tables in southeastern Massachusetts, experiencing more harassment from kitchen staff, almost as if it was normal. The owner of the last restaurant where I waited tables tried to kiss me. (A recent Washington Post story said that 12% of sexual harassment complaints filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are from the food and hotel industry.)
That Clarence Thomas moment, in fall 1991, was supposed to be the moment we are now in, 26 years later. But instead we are here, seeing men fall off the cliff in numbers, because rich white women stood up and said they had been harassed. When a not so rich black woman said the same thing about a Supreme Court justice nominee, she was not believed and he became a Supreme Court justice with a lifetime term.
Men, many of whom I know well, are looking back over their lives and examining and questioning their behavior. Were they flirting or harassing? Was the culture of the kitchen something they willingly bought into? Was their late night drunken behavior with “friends” inappropriate? Where is the fine line between friendly and harassing?
These are questions, as a woman, I cannot answer. But I can ask that men begin to acknowledge their past behavior or their complicity in that behavior. How many men stood next to other men who were harassing women? How many women, like my manager, took a man’s word over that of the woman who was being harassed?
My hope is that the new Times Up Now Legal Defense Fund, whose letter in The New York Times spoke directly to farm worker, domestic and service industry women, will help all women who have been victimized. And that there will be a real acknowledgement that putting women in leadership positions throughout all of these industries can change the culture. I hope.