What’s up with men? At this point, it is too long to recite, the list of high-ranking men in government, industry, and entertainment who are in the news because of credible accusations by women of sexual harassment, assault, and even pedophilia. “…and when you’re a star, they let you do it,” once said America’s current president, notoriously bragging about his own apparently casual abuse of women.
What’s up with women? I guess we’re not going to take it any more! I remember, with a mixture of horror and pride, watching Anita Hill in 1991 testify before Congress that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him early in her career. Hill was a picture of dignity, sincerity, and bravery facing a committee of white men whose scorn itself bordered on harassment. The committee refused to allow at least one corroborating witness to testify, and Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) accused Hill of perjury. In the end they shoved her testimony aside. Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court today. Congress, having dispatched with his accusers, would seem to have signaled to high-ranking men everywhere that sexual harassment is an entitlement, and to women that we can like it or lump it.
That was then. This is now. Read: a woman’s body belongs to herself. She is not legally subject to your insults, your entreaties, your hands, or your genitalia. She will not remain silent, for she knows that sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power, and specifically, about holding hers at bay.
Have we turned a corner?
We may be in the process of turning a corner. But there are still problems to come, to wit: we are still raising girls and boys as if they were two separate species.
In the 1990s I owned a family day care in San Francisco where my clients and I attempted to raise children free of gender expectation of all kinds. There was no pink or blue in our school, except when I wanted to mess with it, e.g., painting a big, metal dump truck pink. The parents and I were thoughtful about the language we used, so we didn’t talk about big, strong boys or fawn over girly dresses. We promoted ball play for all children, because it teaches important skills and concepts. We worked at building a book collection that equally celebrated male and female protagonists. This project required hard, constant, mindful effort; but in the end, two things happened: 1) each child got to explore all of the experiences offered, not half of them due to gender expectations, and 2) our children did not segregate themselves by gender, but mixed and matched spontaneously, based on things like common interest and developmental stage. That’s what we learned from them: that gender segregation is a cultural artifact, not a natural phenomenon.
That this was a better way to raise children became apparent to everyone involved, and was often remarked on in public places like the neighborhood park, where several times strangers asked me the funniest question, “Where did you get these wonderful children?” I learned to ask these observers to look more closely and tell me what they saw. Never once did one of them notice that our children were the only group in the park not segregated by gender. When I pointed it out to them, they were shocked. One woman gasped and said, “How do you get boys to play with girls?” unwittingly voicing the exact prejudice that, once taught to children, results in the debacle we witness today in the workaday world: that male is the anointed class, female the “other.” We should stop teaching that. Now.
Lee Marcus is the author of “Hearts Afire: The Story of Moonwhistle School.” She lives in Arkport.