Saturday, January 21, 2017

The straw that broke the camel's back

This week I got catcalled.

A (young, female) co-worker and I were walking back from lunch downtown together because we didn't want to drive on the ice, when a group of men in a van slowed down, pulled up next to us and yelled things at us out the window.

On its face, it wasn't really a big deal. Not the first time something like that had happened to either of us, and it certainly won't be the last. But if I had been alone, if it had been getting dark or on a less busy road, I would have been thinking about how if the men, just feet away from me, jumped out and pulled me into the van there wouldn't really be anything I could do about it.

You have to think like that when you're a woman, because from the time you hit puberty society tells you don't go out alone at night or you'll get raped. Don't drink alcohol or you'll get raped. Don't leave your soda unattended or you'll get raped. Don't be alone with men you just met or you'll get raped. Don't wear tight clothes or you'll get raped. Don't stay in a hotel alone or you'll get raped. Don't run with headphones in or you'll get raped. Don't park in parking garages or you'll get raped. Don't wear your hair in a ponytail because that makes it easier for a rapist to grab you and drag you into an alley.

It's hard not to let that color everything you do, to sit and wonder if the man on the other end of the phone you've never met will be offended if you ask him to meet you in a public place for the interview instead of his home as he just suggested. You know that probably nothing will happen if you break these "rules" for not getting raped or otherwise assaulted, but you also know that if something does happen everyone will tsk tsk and say "Well what was she thinking, going for a walk by herself at 11 at night? And in that tight of jeans?"

I personally know people who have been raped. I know women who have been stalked, who have been abused. These things really happen. And you know that if they do, the police might say there's not enough evidence to make an arrest, or the jury might not believe you, or the judge might only sentence your attacker to a few months in jail or even just probation because he doesn't want to ruin a young man's sports career or the middle school girl "came onto" her teacher and he's the real victim for having his reputation ruined.

Sometimes, men don't have to yell dirty, suggestive things at you to make you feel small. Sometimes it's the "harmless old men" who "don't know any better" than to treat the men around you with a certain level of professionalism while at the same time calling you "honey" and "sweetheart" and asking why you aren't married yet instead of answering the interview questions. There's a man who sometimes comes into the newsroom to drop off literature about how women's place is in the home, serving her man, and to chastise our almost-all-female office for having jobs.

This is an actual conversation I had a couple of months ago with a customer who came in to complain he hadn't gotten a newspaper delivered that day:

Me: Here's your paper, sorry you had to come in and get it.
Him: That's OK, it got me out of some housework. I hate housework.
Me: Haha I hate housework too.
Him: Imagine that, a woman who hates housework!
Me: ...
Him: Are you single?
Me: Yes
Him: Maybe that's why.

I didn't tell him to mind his own business because I wouldn't want to lose the company a customer. Most women don't say anything when men make them feel uncomfortable. If you "make a big deal" out of someone being sexist or sexually harassing you, you know you'll probably get labelled an uptight harpy or "Feminazi" or special snowflake or skank who was asking for it or gold-digger looking for an excuse to sue.

Sometimes it's not the personal conversations, it's the whole system that is troubling. Did you know that the government didn't require female-sized crash test dummies to be included in vehicle safety tests until 2011? Before then most automakers only ran tests using dummies that were the size and shape of a man, until eventually someone thought that maybe the reason women were 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured or killed in the same type of crash as a man is because seatbelts and airbags were all designed for someone taller and heavier. Or did you know that in 2014 the National Institute of Health had to tell drug companies and medical researchers to stop using only male animals and men in most of their trials, because that habit might have something to do with the fact that women experience much higher rates of adverse reactions to medication than men?

The idea of a "pay gap" for women and men is more complicated than both sides like to claim, but I do know that all of my brothers went to college with more money in the bank than me in part because before I was old enough for a "real job" people at church only wanted to hire me to babysit five kids for $5 an hour, while they would pay my brothers $20 to spend 45 minutes mowing their lawn. And I know that pay ratio continues into adulthood for unskilled workers who are in female-dominated "pink-collar" jobs like home health aids versus male-dominated "blue-collar" jobs like construction. Even though I'm pretty sure a lot of people would rather install windows than clean up bodily fluids all day.

These types of things have always bothered me. They've always bothered lots of women, sometimes from the time they sat in history class in high school and went days without hearing a woman's name mentioned once. But listening to the future president of the United States brag that one of the perks of fame is being able to grab women by the genitals and get away with it, and hearing about the radio interview where he bragged that the best part of owning a beauty pageant was being able to walk in unannounced on the contestants while they were changing into their bikinis and they wouldn't feel like they could complain  ... and *people decided he still deserved to be the most powerful person on the planet anyway* ... that was the straw that broke the camel's back for a lot of women.

I listened to men -- not just distant strangers on the television but also my friends -- defend him by saying that he hires women so therefore he's not sexist. I felt like I was being told that because I am allowed to leave the house and have a job, that's it. Sexism is solved. Everything else is "just locker room talk."

Screw that. I deserve better, and so do other women.

People were so offended by our newspaper writing an article about a planned women's march nearby that they took time to write hate mail and long rants on Facebook about it. They kept talking (in between their really mature, articulate comments such as "Babys.") about how women aren't going to have their "rights" taken away. But a conversation about Constitutional rights completely misses all of the above problems.

If you're a woman and you don't see what the big deal is, or you are a Republican who feel that despite these being nonpartisan issues today's marches are too anti-Trump for your liking, and so you don't want to march or cheer on the marchers, fine, I can respect that. But if you actively go out of your way to ridicule and demean the women who have decided to speak up, I don't respect that.

When I was a kid, I was told that if a strange man did something that made me feel uncomfortable I should loudly tell him "Stop that."  Nobody told me that when I was an adult that would be considered "whining."

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