Growing up in my part of the world, a woman activist was seriously frowned upon, because challenging the status quo was frowned upon, as was questioning authority (which was mostly male) or speaking your mind. Women were expected to defer to men — whom we apparently needed to take care of us — and discouraged from causing trouble or drawing attention to ourselves. At the time, I dutifully obeyed. Now, at middle age, I wonder if on some unconscious level I’m still obeying, particularly around women’s issues.
I started thinking about this last week, when I attended Gioia De Cari’s wonderful one-woman show, Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through M.I.T.’s Male Math Maze. Her autobiographical show follows her experience as a female PhD candidate in the elite boys club of the M.I.T. math department and explores what it takes to be a professional woman in a male-dominated area. The sexism she experienced — albeit several years ago — was extreme. The show was funny, caustic, poignant, and like all good theater, it got me thinking.
It got me thinking about my own study and work experiences. I dealt with sexual harassment, which started with the married university professor who asked me to spend the weekend with him when all I wanted was advice on a term paper. He continued to pursue me, biting my shoulder in the middle of class when no one was looking, among other numerous, inappropriate actions.
It got me thinking about my married boss at my first job who asked me to sleep with him — suggested in a much more crass way — and who took every opportunity to touch or fondle female employees. (Fortunately, a complaint was finally lodged, an investigation ensued and he was fired from his position, but the reason he was terminated was never publicly stated to protect his reputation; there’s a good chance his behavior continued.) It got me thinking about another boss, also married, at a prestigious NYC public relations firm, who spent an alleged business dinner trying to convince me to have an affair with him (the fact I was then happily married did not seem to make a difference). And it got me thinking about how many other times boundaries were crossed by men who were “above me,” their sense of entitlement made evident, their disrespect barely concealed.
Anger and Inspiration
Don’t misunderstand me — this isn’t a rant against men. Most of this happened 25 to 30 years ago and the situations in universities and the workplace are improving, although there’s still a ways to go. It’s more a rant against silence. Through it all, I never said a word. I just accepted their behavior (but, for the record, not their “invitations”) and tried to avoid their advances. I didn’t want to question authority, cause trouble, or God forbid, draw attention to myself.
But these days, it’s harder for me to stay quiet, particularly as I watch my niece and all my friends’ daughters prepare to join the workforce; as I read about gender inequalities in our country, in economic and political power; and, further from home, as I read about the Afghan woman who was killed by her husband — and, incredulously, by her mother-in-law — because she bore only daughters. An anger I didn’t know before is rising. I’m glad.
Shout Out Loud
In my 20s, I didn’t think I had a voice. Now in my 50s, I have a stage. Other women playwrights provide inspiration, like Gioia De Cari, above, whose work prompts meaningful conversations, and Eve Ensler, whose work The Vagina Monologues started an international grassroots movement — V-Day — to stop violence against women. She describes herself as a playwright, performer, and an activist.
Some folks bristle at the word activist, which can conjure up images of outbursts, disruption, people making us feel uncomfortable by forcing us to confront issues we would rather dismiss. But activists can help bring about important changes. As a dear friend of mine who’s confined to a wheelchair once said, “The last thing I want to be is in a room full of handicapped activists — but they do get the sidewalks fixed.” I don’t qualify as an activist yet, and I’m not sure I ever will, although my show, I Will Be Good, does speak to some women’s issues. In my next production, however, I plan to speak louder, maybe even shout. I encourage you to do the same.
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