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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also included the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate and protect from discrimination in the workplace. President LBJ pushed the legislation through Congress on the heels of JFK’s assassination, but many of the southern states fought the legislation. Congressman Howard W. Smith added the word “sex” to the bill, hoping that his little joke about equality between men and women might derail the legislation.
For fifty-three years, it has been illegal to discriminate based on gender in the workplace. But the current revelations demonstrate that sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination are a regular part of life for most women in the workplace.
We all have stories of harassment in the workplace. Not all resulted in assault or maybe not even harassment in a legal sense. But we all have stories. Most of us figured out fairly quickly which men didn’t look us in the eye. We made sure to avoid being alone with certain men, or at least stand in the doorway of their office so not to be alone with them. We had nicknames for certain men that always made certain kinds of jokes. We avoided them whenever possible. But it wasn’t always possible. Could we have reported them? Possibly. But when you are the on the lowest rung of the ladder, making enemies of the men with power is occupational suicide. So instead, we smiled at inappropriate comments, rolled our eyes at dirty jokes, and pretended to be the “cool girls” who didn’t mind when “boys acted like boys.”
When you don’t have much power, people can take advantage of you. And they can punish you, professionally and otherwise.
So we did the best we could, and many of us made it without incident. Or did we? I don’t know for sure. So much of harassment takes place behind closed doors and is deliberately hidden. My community recently discovered an elementary school teacher who had been inappropriate with students for some thirteen years. Thirteen years. Some wondered why the children didn’t report the abuse sooner. What is the price for telling the truth about people who are abusing their power?
As I listen to more and more women coming forward to name those who have abused them, harassed them, assaulted them and raped them, I cannot help but wonder how many more stories are out there. Some ask why women have waited so long to come forward. Maybe the real question is, what is the price for speaking up?
For the moment, people are listening. How long will it last?