It’s odd how a scent or the first few bars of a song heard on the radio can bring back a flood of memories of good times or bad. A random Facebook post did that for me today.
It was about a much-hyped experiment carried out in New York in which a young woman strolled for ten hours down streets in New York City. A collaboration between an anti-street harassment organization (who knew there was such as thing?) and a marketing agency, the video makers claim she was verbally harassed more than 100 times. She was also followed and catcalled. Part of the controversy is that although the filmmakers admit that there were white men who said egregious things to her, those particular audio or video clips were marred by noise or poor line of sight for the cameraman. Really? And there’s the valid question — why would an attractive white woman in a form-fitting short dress be spending all that time blithely cruising apparently grotty neighbourhoods where she’d stand out like a daisy in a field of hay?
No matter. The video made its point and stimulated the gender bias conversation. Again. Sad to say, many women have had similar experiences. Whether they are young or old, tall or bent, attractive or ordinary, the majority of women have unfortunately shared this demeaning treatment. There are dozens that I’ve forgotten. However, four incidents that stand out clearly in the thicket of my memories. After the video I’ll talk about two. I’ll write about the other two tomorrow.
Published on Jan 17, 2014. In this fascinating talk, founder of the award-winning EverydaySexismProject, Laura Bates, talks about her inspiring initiative. The EveryDaySexism is an ever-increasing collection of over 50,000 women’s experiences of gender imbalance. The stories come from women of all ages, races and sexual orientations, disabled and non-disabled, employed and unemployed, religious and non-religious. The project has expanded into 18 countries worldwide and become internationally renowned, featuring in media from the New York Times to French Glamour, CNN to Grazia South Africa, Cosmopolitan to the Times of India.
A memory I’d thought long-buried dates back to the late fifties or perhaps the early sixties. My mother was at work on a night shift as a nurse. My brothers and I were at home. They were playing in the front room with trucks, I think, or a puzzle. I was about 13, just beginning to bud, a shy bookworm with big responsibilities. I was doing my homework at the kitchen table. The doorbell rang. I opened it on the safety chain and saw a middle-aged white man in a suit and tie. There was nothing remarkable about him. He had a pink shiny scalp. Strands of pale hair lay across his head like they’d been painted on with a thin brush. He said he was the insurance man and he named the company – one of the ones that advertised all the time on television. He stuck his hand in, holding out an envelope with Mom’s name on it. He said I had to sign that he’d delivered it personally. I recognized him from a previous visit and wasn’t afraid to let him into our little apartment.
He sat down at the table opposite me and glanced at my workbook – history, I think it was. We made idle chat about school for a while. I must have looked restless as I played with my braids. He opened the envelope and took out a piece of paper and a fountain pen. He gestured for me to stand by his side and sign, then he’d witness my signature. It all sounded reasonable. I remember picking up the pen, still warm from being between his fingers. I tried to make myself small as I bent over the table to slowly scratch out my name. He said something like, ‘that’s not very good writing’ and pulled me onto his lap. He bounced me up and down a couple of times, as if I was a child. I was just a child. And he molested me.
If I close my eyes, I can feel his wide thigh under my small buttocks. I smell his aftershave, his sharp perspiration and the shiny pomade he’d applied to his hair. I tried to stand. He gripped my arms above the elbow. His hand stroked the small mound that was my right breast. I felt nothing aside from a wave of squirmy sickness in my stomach. His breathing was loud in my ear. He’d been chewing mint Lifesavers. One of my brothers began to howl in the other room. I leaped to my feet to see what had happened. The insurance man packed up the papers and left them on the side of the table. His face was very red. I stood there clutching my brother against my body and watched as the man let himself out. I locked the door and stuck a kitchen chair behind it, telling my brothers we were going to make a fort and play a game. I didn’t make a fuss, as Laura says. I certainly didn’t tell my mother. I’ve never told anyone. Until now.
Memory # 2
During the summer between grade 12 and grade 13, I worked at a resort on Lake Erie called The Olde Cut Inn as a waitress. I was saving for university and the potential to earn a lot of money was enticing. I’d be okay, good little convent-school honour-roll student that I was. There’d be other girls there who worked in the kitchen or as chambermaids. The people who owned the place were acquaintances of my mother from St. Helen’s church. She’d vetted things with them over and over again and felt comfortable sending her only daughter off into the unknown. The Inn was hours from home and far from the nearest town, so I lived in. I packed up my meager belongings. My mother drove me from St. Catharines to Port Rowan in her aged black Studebaker. We gaped at the miles and miles of tobacco fields lining the dusty two-lane roads. I had a stash of cash for telephone calls and an emergency taxi ride to town if I needed it. Why would I need it?
The Inn wasn’t that big but over the years they’d built up a dedicated clientele who came for the outdoor sports and steak dinners. I remember lots of white clapboard and a huge kitchen with an expanse of flat-top grills. The waitresses wore white uniforms and frilly aprons, white shoes and little hats we bobby-pinned to our hair. That was the first time I’d ever seen so much food – cooked, eaten and thrown away as garbage. The majority of the patrons were wealthy fisherman from the States. They’d roar up in their big boats with half a dozen buddies and cases of alcohol.
They were ‘ugly Americans’ – all beefy, loud and prosperous looking. Oblivious. Entitled. Entitled enough to pat my behind and grab me around the waist trying to pull me onto their meaty knees, murmuring things to me that I didn’t understand at the time but intuited were ‘wrong’. They’d be trying to touch me, kibitzing with their buddies as I cleared their tables and refilled their whiskey glasses. I clearly recall the sense of hot embarrassment at not knowing exactly what was happening, the visceral destabilization of being casually groped, the impression I was some sort of tamed creature there for amusement. I’d pressed my lips together, knowing that if I smiled enough and was sassy enough to ease from their grasp without being impertinent, I’d get a big tip when they’d finished their massive steaks and baked potatoes. I did speak to the owner’s wife about it. She grimaced, shrugged, patted me on the shoulder and said I could come to her if anything bad happened.
What do I feel today? Rage mainly. At the callous sense of ownership those men displayed. At their power – real or implied – over me. I was just a bag of ripe female parts. ‘Strange young stuff’. Warm flesh that could be sampled. Rage that I didn’t do anything – kick them in the balls, scream, scratch, say something withering. Rage that I was so trusting and naive and vulnerable. Then but not now. My rage has a shape and carries weapons. When I call it up, it can swell and smother with a volcanic energy. It pounds like iron-spiked fists. I scarcely use it, but it’s there.
I have no shame, though, which is a good thing. Some women’s souls are destroyed by those occurrences Perhaps my innocence protected me. It’s curious. Deep down, I always knew that I could protect myself. How, I’m not sure. As clueless as I was about life, I sensed that what those self-assured bastards did was a violation but I don’t remember feeling particularly violated. Their assaults didn’t shape who I’ve become, so I suppose you could say that in the end, I’ve won. I never felt like a victim. Why not? Don’t know.
Those incidents happened half a century ago. Does it matter? Those predators are all dead now. Maybe they have rotted in hell. I don’t care. My voice has not been silenced: I’m still here to damn them and write about them. My fuss may be small, but it’s still a fuss.