I’m in first grade, and there’s a boy who follows me around, tries to sit next to me at reading time, tries to hold my hand. I ignore him. I scoot away and turn my back on him to talk to my friends. I hurry to the bus to get away from him. I tell my mother of my frustration, and she thinks it’s cute that this boy has such a crush on me. She tells me to be kind and not hurt his feelings.
My mother who is smart, confident, capable, who wanted to go to college but couldn’t because her parents had limited funds and it was more important to send the two boys to college since they’d need to support families. College for women was an unnecessary extravagance. They’d never use that degree. They’d get married and be homemakers and stay-at-home-mothers. It was a waste of money for all but the wealthy. My mother who felt strongly about equal rights for women had inadvertently told me that this boy’s feelings were more important than mine – that I shouldn’t hurt his feelings, even if that meant I needed to suck it up and put up with his very unwanted attentions.
I’m in second grade and another boy pulls my braids. Hard. It’s not the first time, so I punch him. Hard. I am called before the teacher who tells me that this boy has a crush on me and that’s why he pulls my hair. I get a bad mark for that day for hitting him. The lesson there is that boys get to hurt me, and I can’t do anything about it or I’ll get in trouble.
Fast forward to my first “real” job. I’m a sales person at a computer company, a few months from graduating with my degree. I’m one of the top sellers. I’ve assisted management in projects. I’ve made it clear that I’m one of those “career women”. A lesser qualified man from my department is promoted to manager. I didn’t even get an interview. When I go to the director I’m told that this man has a wife and two kids at home. He needs the job more than I do.
This is the same company that refused to promote women into their lucrative Corporate Sales group, because they felt women weren’t able to get their foot in the door to the C-suite like men were. The only promotional avenue for women in sales with the Government Sales group, which didn’t make outside calls and basically submitted to RFQs full-time.
At the next company I’ve managed to be one of the few women who were promoted into Outside Sales. The dress code for women is a skirt suit with pantyhose – no tights or leggings. I freeze in the winter, sloshing through slush and snow as I go on sales calls.
We win some major contracts, making our region a top seller for the company. In recognition, our boss takes us all out to a posh DC restaurant. After lunch, he and the guys on our team all decide to go down the street to a strip club. The other two women on our team decline, but I go. I sit in the strip club, drinking overpriced beer with a naked woman gyrating next to me while the guys discuss business strategy for the coming quarter. We leave after one drink, and I know it’s because they feel awkward being at a strip club with me sitting beside them.
I’m raped. I don’t call it that for decades. I didn’t report it to the police. I didn’t even tell my friends or family. I was at a party with friends. I’d brought my sleeping bag, intending to stay like so many of us were if I drank too much. Right away a man who is a friend of a friend expresses interest in me. He’s attractive. He owns a successful company. He owns a small plane. He’s rich. Friends tell me how I’ve lucked out, that he’s a catch, but I don’t like him. I spend the party trying to avoid him, but do it in a nice way that won’t hurt his feelings because I don’t want to be “that bitch”. He follows me, intruding on conversations, constantly handing me drinks. I’m not sure what happened because I’m suddenly very, very drunk. I try to lay on the couch in the living room, surrounded by people, to go to sleep but he cuddles up next to me, wrapping his arms around me. There’s even a picture of me smiling, my eyes glazed while he cuddles me. Finally I go upstairs to the spare room my friend told me I could sleep in, telling my persistent admirer that I’m drunk, tired, and I’ll see him in the morning.
I wake up to him having sex with me, my sweatpants around my ankles. I push him off, barely able to keep my eyes open. I tell him “no”. This happens three more times. Three more times I try to push him off and tell him “no”. Finally I’m too tired and I just let him do it. I’m half-passed out, unresponsive. He hasn’t had an alcoholic beverage all night as he doesn’t drink. I wake up to him curled up next to me, and go home as quickly as I can.
He calls me. He asks me out. He’s very insistent about how crazy he is about me. My friends all think I’m nuts for turning him down. I finally manage to convince him that I don’t want to date him. I don’t tell anyone, even the therapist I’ve begun to see. Who would believe me? Who would believe that a wealthy, successful, good-looking man would rape a passed-out drunken woman? He liked me. He wanted to go out with me. Clearly I did something that night to encourage him. And I shouldn’t have been drinking anyway.
I’m 9 months pregnant and being laid-off from a company in a major downsizing. My boss (a woman and the HR Manager) tells me that this is a good thing. The severance package is very nice, and I probably won’t return after having my child anyway. I’ll want to stay home and raise him while my husband works, so this lay-off when I’m one week away from my due date is a good thing for me.
At another company, a major retail chain, I’m in line for a Regional Director position. I go to the Vice President of HR, and rather than ask about my experience, he quizzes me about how my husband would feel about moving. He then informs me that he only gives relocation promotions to single childless women, or women who are trailing a relocated husband who works for the company, because otherwise the husband resents having to move and makes his wife quit.
I go to the EEOC and am told they won’t take the case, because it’s not really clear cut whether he’s discriminating against me because I’m a woman or because I’m married. I wouldn’t win, because there are single, childless women Regional Directors, and there are married men Regional Directors, and being a married woman isn’t really a protected class unto itself.
I’m divorced, in a long-term relationship that in other states would be a common law marriage. We have two children. His grandmother is very concerned that we aren’t married. She asks me what will happen if he leaves me for someone younger, thinner? I won’t get anything because we’re not married. I’ll be struggling to support two children on my own. Most of his family doesn’t seem to understand that I’m the breadwinner of our family, that I make more than double what my boyfriend does. That it’s him who should be worried that I’ll walk away for a younger, more buff guy, leaving him to struggle to care for two children without my income.
And recently, at the age of 51, I date a man my age who constantly complains about his ex-wife, about the money he pays her in child-support that she got in the divorce five years ago. He portrays her as a lazy gold-digger, getting mani-pedis, shopping at Nordstroms, having a cleaning service all on his dime. She works. She has a professional corporate job, but to him she’s a parasite. He looks at picture of a vacation I took and makes a comment that that must be the sort of thing I want in a boyfriend – someone who can afford to take me to the islands. He’s told me proudly how much he makes per year. I make double that. I paid for that island vacation with my own money. And I too like to shop at Nordstroms, so I don’t contact him ever again.
While picking up my younger kids at school, the other mothers and I talk about kids, what we’re cooking for dinner, plumbing disasters. They know I’m no longer with their father, and they assume I’m getting huge child support from him, that I must have a hell of a divorce settlement because I bought a nice house, have a big diesel truck, own two horses that I board at a stable. I don’t receive a dime from him. I’ve earned the money for all these things on my own, something that completely perplexes the (very nice, kind, and earnest) women in my area.
I have more, but I need to write my novels. So I stamp these things down with a firm foot and strive to succeed in spite of roadblocks that every woman I know has encountered. Stay strong, women, and if that boy pulls your braids, you have my permission to hit him. Hard.