Saturday, October 21, 2017

I really thought this post would be outdated by now

Six years ago, I wrote about how Anita Hill's bravery had improved my own personal working situation. But, you know, not enough. Here's a repost. Hope it's the last one.


“Dear Ms. Hill” An Eighties Survivor Offers a Long-Overdue Thank You

It’s been twenty years since Anita Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. In a recent interview, she mentioned that she’s received tens of thousands of letters since then, and that reading them inspired her to write her new book, Reimagining Equality.

I could claim that my letter to Ms. Hill was lost in the mail (remember mail? It was all the rage twenty years ago), but, the sorry truth is, I never wrote one. At the time, I didn’t realize the importance of her testimony, nor did I understand what the impact of that testimony would be. So here’s my belated letter, delivered with many thanks:

Dear Ms. Hill,
I started working when I was 16. I’ve worked in a public library, an all-girls’ high school and several advertising and marketing agencies. Except for my stint at the school, where every employee was female (except for the janitor), there was never a time when there were not men at my place of work who took every possible opportunity to engage in smirking innuendo, smarmy double entendre and blatant sexual discussions. The culture of the time dictated that everyone should laugh at, and pretend to enjoy, this talk, for to do otherwise was to be labeled “uptight.”

There was always at least one female in each of these work groups who indicated that she loved this sort of thing, and whose giggles and sidelong looks always encouraged the men to even greater feats of Hefner-esque blather. I noticed that these were usually the girls with the very large breasts. I suspected that if I also had very large breasts, I might think that the guys were just as funny as these girls did. In fact, I thought the men AND the girls were stupid, but I tried not to say so. To be uptight was a terrible thing, back in the eighties.

After working at a number of perennially failing local ad agencies (profits were low; cocaine costs tended toward the high side), I landed at a regular, mainstream marketing services agency, the largest operation in town. I was assigned to provide support for the all-male sales staff located in our Detroit region, where, I was told, women would need “a thick skin” and be able to “take it” from those rugged guys. I realize now that big breasts would have helped me a lot more than a thick skin, but I possessed neither, so it was, as one of those Detroit geniuses used to say, “a mute point.”

Since you’ve worked at law firms and universities, Ms. Hill, I suspect that you might not have met any men like these in your professional life, or at least until you ran into Justice Thomas. In any case, let me paint a picture for you of my world at that time, the time before you testified, using one fellow as an example of the archetypal behavior in that Detroit group. We’ll call him Bob, because that was his name, and we’ll skip over a detailed description of his beady eyes, his protruding jaw, or his tiny, mean mouth. We’ll just head right to some scenes that pretty much sum up my working life with him.

Scene One:  During a Presentation. We are gathered in a conference room, poised before flip charts (remember them? They were like cumbersome and unchangeable PowerPoints, just a step up from carved stone tablets, and even heavier). I am the only female present. Bob circles around the table, introducing each of “the guys.” He pauses a beat at me, then moves on. “What about her?” the customer asks. “She does the typing,” Bob spits out, looking very, very pleased with himself. 

Scene Two:  After a Presentation. We are packing up the slide trays and the flip charts after a presentation to GM Body Parts, and discussion begins about where we will be eating our celebratory team meal. I am the only woman in the group. Bob studiously avoids looking at me as he says, “Let’s go to the Men’s Grill at the Detroit Country Club.” Steve Maritz, a prince among these swine, points out that this will mean that I will be forced to eat, alone, in an anteroom.  Bob’s shrug indicates his lack of concern for this eventuality. I have heard, in fact, from other women upon whom this stunt was pulled. Joyce Irwin, a kind-hearted and creative member of the measurement team, told me that she once ate her entire dinner, alone, outside the confines of the Men’s Grill. “It was sort of fun,” she said, without a lot of enthusiasm. Steve suggests that we go somewhere else instead, and, mostly because his family name is on the building, we do. I never do see the women's anteroom, nor do I eat in it. But Bob continues to suggest it every time dining suggestions are being entertained.

Scene Three: During a Rehearsal. I use this term loosely, because “rehearsing” for an upcoming presentation to one of the big three auto manufacturers would seem to warrant an occasion for review, discussion and practice. At this company, at least back then, it was time for rushing out of the room on urgent phone calls, wandering around the office anxiously, and issuing graphic threats to the salesperson, who is frequently reminded that his genitals will be "on the chopping block," should the business not be won. By this time, I am used to the Betsy Ross craft work of making changes to the hefty flip charts, and rechecking the million-dollar budgets on a calculator. During this particular rehearsal, for GMC Truck, it becomes known that one of the salesmen in the office has accepted a job as a Regional Manager in the San Francisco office. This is a cause for great gales of homophobic hilarity. San Francisco, get it?

Bob tells the man, “Better not bend over to get the soap in the shower,” and everyone guffaws. Then Bob uses the speakerphone to share the news with several colleagues, always making sure to include his soap/shower warning. By the time the day is over, I have heard this remark dozens of times.

I keep at my work and I keep quiet. After a few years at this company, I have made a good friend. He is gay. I’ve always known that this talk is stupid, and I'm sure that, on several levels, it's just wrong. But to consider that what Bob is saying is illegal -- that people in business should not be allowed, by law, to be talking this way?  It’s not a concept I can even entertain.

Scene Four:  October, 1991.  Cue you. I watch every bit of the hearings. I know you are right.  I suspect that you are brave in ways I cannot imagine. And then I have to get back to work.

Final Scene, One year later. I am back in Detroit, preparing for another presentation, this time for Pontiac.  The group has grown weary of running around the room and threatening the safety of each other’s genitals, so we’ve gone out for lunch. There are maybe eight people at the table.  I am the only woman. Sometime during the course of the lunch, the smarmy freelance consultant says something. The funny part about this memory is that I cannot tell you what it was that the man said– it must have been so like what I heard every day from these characters that it became background noise.

But the moment we rise from the table and start to leave, the Regional Manager rushes over to me, smarmy consultant in tow. “Don didn’t mean anything offensive by what he said earlier,” the man says, “and he’d like to apologize.” The man then apologizes. To me. Because, he says, he hoped that what he said didn’t offend me. At first, I want to tell them that I don’t even know what they’re talking about, but I decide to keep that to myself. Grimly, I say, “I won’t report it. This time.”

When I see the relief on their faces, I feel as if the earth is shifting beneath my feet. I am in Detroit, a place where I have been demeaned, devalued and dismissed over the course of many years. And, Ms. Hill, because of you and what you were willing to do, these vermin are worried enough to behave politely towards me.  Not because they have suddenly sprouted souls, of course, but because the company’s corporate counsel has painted them a grim picture of how expensive a lawsuit from a mouthy, small-breasted bitch like me could be.

Work changed. It changed at that moment, and it changed every day after that. I’m not naive enough to think that these men are any different than they ever were.  When you put a lid over the sewer gas in a conference room, it just leaks out in different places, like talk radio, or Fox News. But, at least in the conference rooms I frequent these days, they have to watch their mouths.

And for that, Ms. Hill, I can only say – Thank You. 

God Bless You,
Julie Kendrick

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful and important piece of writing -- sad to say that once again as we see the events surrounding the current Supreme Court nomination. I love the way you tell this story, in a personal way, and how and why a shift took place. Thank you! -Freddie