I was thinking about how I’d answer Laura’s question: What is the single most important thing you want your daughters to know as they grow up? And as I was narrowing it down in my head, I was also reflecting on the stories women have been telling for the past couple of days under the hashtag #metoo – stories of sexual harassment or assault that they’ve endured in their lives that broaden the conversation beyond the exploits of one Hollywood producer and the numerous women he’s harassed and assaulted for decades. These two inner conversations have continued, and so I think I’m going to link them together here because they are important. It’s not going to be a pleasant read, so I’m okay if you skip it. It’s not my best language, it’s not my finest writing. I don’t think I’m particularly brave in sharing it, or brave in general, but becoming a mother has made me a stronger person, and a tougher advocate. And it’s reduced my tolerance for bullshit. By a lot.
When I was E’s age, I went on a trip with three other girlfriends and two counselors to volunteer at a girls’ camp for young children exposed to physical and sexual violence at home. The camp was a week away from home for these girls – a chance to be a kid and make new friends and do summer camp activities. We weren’t involved in any of the deeper work sessions – we just ran the crafts and games.
The camp was several hours away from home, and we stopped somewhere in the middle at a small highway exit with just one gas station and a McDonald’s. The adults gassed up the cars, and two of us ran up the steep hill between the gas station and McD’s to grab an ice cream cone. We bought our cones and came back outside, crossing over the drive-thru lane and then the bus lane with a school bus packed with high school kids on some other camp or summer adventure. There were some whistles out the windows, and we were acting as high schoolers are wont to do – pretending we couldn’t hear them or were above a response, but also curious, and lingering just a bit as we walked. Likely giggling. Super into boys, and not uninterested in the attention from them.
It’s important that you understand just how steep the hill was between the two parking lots – steep enough that we paused for a moment and realized there was no way we were going to look cool running back down it again. So we finally just laughed and took off, barely remaining upright, and gaining speed quickly. A pickup truck at the base of the hill inched forward in the car wash exit driveway as we ran, and we had a hard time stopping ourselves at the bottom so we wouldn’t run into the driver’s door. This guy had his window rolled down and was smiling at us. He asked us if we knew where the interstate was, and we told him we didn’t know – we weren’t from around there. (If we had been a little older and wiser we would have realized the entrance ramp was directly in front of that driveway – his question was a bogus one.) He asked us where we were from, and about that time we both looked down and realized that he was masturbating as he was talking to us. He wasn’t trying to hide it, everything was in full view, and the act was completed as we stood there. We stopped talking and backed up a few steps, and then he drove away. I’m not sure how long we stood there, but both ice cream cones had melted completely down our arms without us noticing, and the sounds of whistles from the bus above us were still there. We told the adults, and it was reported to the station attendant, but we didn’t have any information to really lead authorities anywhere. We sat in shock for the rest of the drive, and we both cried in our camp beds that night. Our counselors were great about it, but I don’t think we really divulged all the details – I remember feeling like it was something I shouldn’t talk about. I rarely talked about it, but that image haunted me for a long time, as well as the way that ice cream looked and felt down our arms – how we had to physically wash up after an assault where we hadn’t physically been touched.
After my freshman year in college, I landed a summer internship with one of the largest architecture firms in my home state. I had zero office skills, and I’m pretty sure the only reason I was hired was because a family friend pulled some strings. I worked hard and learned a lot, and have some really great memories of that time – I went on to work for them the following two summers as well.
The office had about 40-50 people working there, mostly white men, except for the one black man in the CAD department. The secretarial staff was all female. The exceptions on the architecture side were me (an intern), and two female architects. One was ten years older than me, and the other was recently graduated and working toward licensure. Both would become some of the most important women in my life over that time period. They always included me in everything – occasional after work drinks, always choosing places where their underage tagalong could go. They would invite me over for dinner, cook for me, include me in discussions with their friends. Both were wildly talented, intelligent, strong, and underpaid.
I developed a lunch hour walking habit with one of these women – we would change into walking clothes and head out of the office each day at 12:15. We avoided the fancy lobby in our gym shorts, and exited out the back door instead. That meant we had to walk though the CAD department, and endure their catcalls each day. They whistled and called us “Babewalk” which had morphed out of “Baywatch”, which was popular on TV and also featured on many of the pinup calendars prominently displayed at their desks. The would superimpose our faces onto the Baywatch bodies in their red swimsuits and hang the printouts up in the office. We rolled our eyes and ignored them, but that was it. What else was there to do? The men’s restroom had a stack of porn in it the men would frequently reference in conversations, and the cubicles were lined with half-naked women – it was better to just play dumb and move on. If the principals really had an issue with it, a little in-house cleanup would have already happened.
I also worked there over winter break, and went to my first Christmas party that year. It was a staff only event that happened during business hours on the final workday before the holiday. The drinking started early, and everyone had drawn names earlier that week for a gift exchange. Many of the gifts were raunchy and demeaning. Half the office thought they were hilarious, and the other half just put up with it in the name of holiday fun, or ignored it. I mostly hung out with the women in the conference room, where we enjoyed our own company and the dessert buffet until hooting and shouting started in the lobby.
Someone had opened up their “gift” and it was a blow-up doll. (Not the most original gift – apparently they made regular appearances around there.) But this particular sex toy had my nineteen year old face taped onto it, and the reactions were noisy and varied. When we heard the ruckus and investigated, I discovered that my manager (a shy, timid, but genuinely decent man) was trying to hide the doll from me and was yelling at the person who made it. Several others stood up with him, including the lone black man in the department. He had never participated in the behavior I described, but I’ve always wondered about how much shit he endured there, and how he must have also felt the pressure to put his head down and work and not rock the boat.
It was absolutely mortifying. Everyone was staring at me. I left with my friends, and we went out for our own celebration. I couldn’t even tell you the names of the men that harassed us on a daily basis, but I still think about the few that (finally) stood up for me that day, and the power of strong women as mentors in my life at that moment. After Christmas, my manager apologized to me. No one else ever did.
I worked there for two more summers, but never went to another holiday party. The small team I worked with in the public housing department was excellent, and my friendships with these two women really grew. I hung onto everything that they said. The older one was in a relationship with a visiting professor from France. She was independently wealthy – a member of one of the most prominent families in the region – but she had eschewed much of that lifestyle, including the power marriage, the 2.5 children, the leadership positions on local boards and charities, and had gone to architecture school and was working for under $30K a year. She was tall and thin and blonde and gorgeous, and didn’t give a shit about her appearance. She listened to me as if I always had something important to contribute; she advocated for me daily. The younger one was newly married, with an equally cool husband. I adored their relationship. In their first year of marriage they were housesitting for two professors on sabbatical, and their townhouse was a block from where I parked my car. They’d invite me to stop in for a few moments where they would feed me or we’d talk about our travels or plans for the future.
Sometimes she’d invite me to a larger gathering there, and the room would fill with interesting women and the conversation would take off in so many different directions. I have a specific memory of a conversation that centered around sex that was revelatory in so many ways. I’d never been part of a conversation on that subject – at first I felt really young and out of place, like maybe I hadn’t graduated to this level of honesty and intimacy with other grown women. Being included was life-changing for me. And having the ear of someone so clever and funny and smart and self-assured on daily lunchtime walks saved me many times over.
There are so many layers to those years for me. I think about a lot of the other things that I dealt with during that time, and I wonder how much of it was directly related to those incidents. I eventually became more vocal about the repulsive behavior in the office, and wasn’t invited to return for my fourth summer at home before graduate school. I felt very conspicuous, like the sight of me in the office or in a meeting or on a jobsite felt out of place, and an open invitation to comments from others. But I was also learning so much about what I wanted to be, where I wanted to go, how far I could push myself and still stay standing. How to dodge the unwanted shoulder massages from professors. How to stick up for myself, even when my voice wavered. How to find the words I needed when I needed them. How to move out of toxic spaces and places, even the ones that looked ideal on the surface. How to look for the toxicity in any situation, even if I wasn’t the one directly affected.
The juxtaposition of these two things is where I am when I think about how to answer Laura’s question. It’s hard for me to narrow down the most important thing I want to pass on or instill in my girls. But I think I’ve landed on this very intersection. I want them to “find their people”, to feel empowered to be themselves among them, to know that they are strong and good and worthy as they are. And I don’t want them to fear new experiences because of the very real and present threat of harassment and assault on their bodies and minds and spirit. The thought of something happening to them in a parking lot at a gas station during a summer adventure turns my stomach; I’d rather wish for them to never experience something like that. But they will. So I want to teach them that those experiences don’t define them, they aren’t their fault, and they aren’t their battle to fight on their own. That I am there for them, that their father is there for them. I wish for them dynamite mentors at every stage of their lives – a role that I know that I cannot play as their mother, and I’m okay with that. I want them to fully know how amazing they are – their bodies, their minds – how they live into and with that joy, how their sexuality is theirs to own and treasure and take charge of and revel in, and how to find the courage – not if, but when – they need to reclaim it again from the many ways that it will be taunted and challenged and managed and legislated during their lives. When I think about how vulnerability is exploited for power, it nearly breaks me. I wish for them strength in their own vulnerability, and that they always have the space and the freedom to grow into themselves at their own pace.