“Honey, get me a pen,” said my boss, in a tone slow and calm enough to soothe a five-year-old. I saw him as more kind than condescending. Meanwhile, later that day, six months into my first job after college, his boss, Mr. A was one of the grabby old men pinching my ass.
My very first experiences in the working world were during the Mad Men era of the 1960’s, going to work with my mother on school holidays. I was always treated politely by her employers—all men—who spoke gently and slowly to me, appropriate to the nine-year-old I was.
In the 1970’s, when it was my turn to climb subway stairs, elbow my way though crowds, and earn my first paychecks in New York City office buildings, no schooling prepared me for office “etiquette.”
Did I call it sexual harassment? Frankly, nobody did. If you were groped, grabbed, fondled or threatened—on the job, or on your way to getting a job—it was par for the course. It became your secret. Feeling so defiled, I was shamed into silence, afraid of what would happen if I spoke up.
Back then, a pat on the ass was encouragement. Nice tits was a compliment—and fetch me some coffee was part of the job, and sometimes a relief. Although 1991’s federal Civil Rights Act, which expanded the rights of employees against employers in cases of discrimination on the job, has made such actions illegal, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.
The Bill Cosby rape allegations shone a spotlight on the put up and shut up culture I lived through in the 1970s and 80s, exposing this treatment as the horrific crimes they were. But in the late 1970s, my friends and I went to work each day—at law offices, advertising agencies, and shipping companies—to face the world of the grope and the slimy comments that we were supposed to take as flattery, even though it made us feel filthy.
At 23, a year into my first job as a layout artist and catalog designer, my 70- year-old boss put his hand on my knee while we were sitting together, looking at design proofs. I froze.
The hand moved up my leg.
I ignored it, wanting it to stop, but too afraid to say anything. I shifted in my seat and crossed my legs, hoping we’d both forget it by the next day. Awkward moment over—until next week’s design meeting—an arm touch, a breast graze. At my annual review, I was told I did good work as a designer. But when I asked for a $25 a week raise, knowing that male colleagues with my experience made even more, I was promptly terminated and replaced, by a young, unsuspecting woman.
Around that time, a friend worked for a music industry executive and got lots of perks. But it seems her boss received greater benefits, as she spent lunch hours under his desk, or taking his dictation in hotels, or in limousines cruising through Central Park. A single mother with two young sons, she said, “So my boss sticks his hands in my pants. I’d rather my kids have shoes than be a mother who has to work a night job.”
As shocking as that might be to some now, back then it was looked at as a viable—though obviously undesirable—decision. My friend had no child support, bills to pay, and a need to keep her kids in a good school. Very few women did it her way.
In the 1980’s friends and I still experienced predatory behavior in the guise of flirtation. Not surprisingly some of those same men have been at it all this time, making dozens of women feel filthy and thinking nothing of it.
My friend Jan, a hard-boiled New Yorker was flying cross-country in 1986. The guy sitting next to her in coach kept leaning in to read her New York Times. She sneered back at him to stop, but he continued reading over her shoulder. When the plane landed, he offered to buy her dinner as a form of apology. She agreed to meet him at his hotel later that day. Thinking he’d be ready to go to dinner the minute she arrived, upon entering his room, he called to her from the bathroom, asking her to keep him company while he took a bath. Yes, this was back in the days when many of Harvey Weinstein’s current accusers weren’t even born, and Harvey was flying coach.
Around that same time, I was in the lobby of Trump Tower, waiting for an elevator to a press event I was attending for work. The elevators took a really long time to arrive in that tall building, long enough for then real estate mogul and ubiquitous New Yorker Donald Trump to make advances towards me. Talking, smiling, cajoling, he tried to amaze me, asking me to watch while he yelled at and humiliated a janitor. Trump was visibly disappointed I wasn’t impressed. Today he’d probably say I’m old enough to be a grandmother of women he found attractive, dismissing my elevator encounter.
It’s been over thirty years since my boss, Mr. A tried to put his hand between my legs. Now, I along with other women in their fifties, are dealing with the second stage of sexual harassment. The flip side of being a woman at work is not being considered young and attractive enough for the job, otherwise known as ageism. Yes that’s the second ugly conduct following sexual harassment that younger women have to look forward to.
To battle ageism a few friends and I in the work force have spent our vacation money instead on a new hairstyle, covering gray with expensive blonde highlights, plus frequent visits to dermatologists for Botox and other experience erasing fillers—an age defier that can run into thousands of dollars to maintain—but deemed necessary to keep a job in a youth—oriented business culture.
A colleague told me that her once harmonious department went through reorganization, displacing most of the staff, ages 45-59. They did not have grounds for an age discrimination suit, since the two oldest women in the department, ages 62 and 64, still remained. Once the twelve mid-lifers were safely packed up and moved out within a half days’ notice, the two older women were transferred to other departments, in lateral moves, relieved to still be employed.
Men still earn more than women for doing the same jobs. Women earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar. Plus men can stay at those jobs longer, as a weathered man is considered distinguished, while a woman with comparable facial lines is considered past her prime. Surely, she’s ready to retire.
After all those years of silence putting up, we won’t go quietly now shutting up.
We’re not in that Don Draper world, where pretty women and glass ceilings kept most of us a rung or two below our true potential.
With all those pokes, prods, and pinches safely in my past—and with the hope that young women don’t endure what I and others did—I have instead become invisible. That’s the reality for many older working women. First we were felt up and now we’re being forced out. But, after all those years of silence, now bold and bolstered by supportive women, we have found our voices. And we are determined to use them.
Less shame and more awareness is growing now. Yes, those filthy feelings or worse others found too painful or risky to share in the past, is still a thing. But it’s now being heard loudly and clearly in a bid for all to be treated, finally, with dignity.