As described by my daughter-in-law, I am an elderly person of extremely advanced age. Quite an accomplishment! Translation: I am a woman in the avant-garde of living.
By now I’ve had more experiences than there’s time to put into words. But one set of experiences must be shared because it’s relevant to experiences many of us are remembering right now—sexual harassment and exploitation, and how we’ve handled it.
In 1957, I was enrolled in a college art program. What a thrill it was to be learning how to paint! Daily a canvas I was working on in the yard of one of my professors was taking shape—a magnificent blossoming tree. The professor was head of the printmaking department—I was grateful that he’d offered me this outside space to work in. One day, as we sat on his couch talking, he reached over and silently began unbuttoning my blouse. I was stunned. My eyes filled with tears, I got up, buttoned my blouse, and left the house, never to return.
This may not seem very traumatic to you, and it isn’t, compared to the stories of violence emerging now. But all of these kinds of abuses, extreme or not, share one characteristic—they are betrayals.
They betray relationships, right relationships. In my case, the betrayal was in the relationship between a respected professor and a young student.
What in retrospect is really astonishing is that I never spoke to anyone else about this, certainly not to the administration, but not to my friends or family either. My father was an educator, the director of a college in Philadelphia. Surely he could have counseled me, and would have. Why did I not speak up?
Recently, amongst a close group of friends, we began talking. Most of the women had had unwanted experiences of sexual aggression. I exclaimed I’d only had one. A French farmer had picked me up while I was hitchhiking from a Spanish border to La Ciotat. He had put his hand on my thigh. “Oh monsieur,” I had said, “on ne fait pas ça.” And he had let me off at the next intersection. This is what I recounted.
The point here is that I had not forgotten the incident with my professor. But even here, in this safe and friendly circle, to mention it never occurred to me. I had tucked it away somewhere in my brain where it had no relevance to any other part of my life.
So to the question so often asked of women who’ve been sexually assaulted—Why didn’t you do something?—there is no reply. One is alone with it.
I, too, am piecing together a reality I have essentially ignored all my life.
Our DNA may be backfiring, against our desire to create an empathetic and egalitarian culture. But we are not victims of a genetic code. We have agency. If a patriarchal, hierarchical, exploitative system we have inherited/created inflicts more damage than good, as human beings we are capable of transforming these structures, these practices. And we absolutely must. A friend said to me the other day, we can’t backslide for a nanosecond.
If this order is so persuasive as to have silenced those suffering exploitation for so long—women, and of course some men too—we too are responsible. We must help each other express what has been painfully hidden. And then we can begin, women and men, to ensure that organizations in all fields—political, corporate, educational, cultural, medical, religious—honor the rights of all of us in their constitutions, their practices, their cultures. And then actually act on them.
How we do this is first of all to speak up, second of all to listen deeply and then to work together consistently and devotedly to demand and honour equal rights. Start from the ground up. Few are the men/people in power who will listen to you.
We need to demonstrate right relationship with our children, girls and boys.
We need to counsel children, at home and school, about the innate integrity of their own beings, which cannot be defiled. What does that look like? We need to talk about, demand and demonstrate justice between genders, between races, amongst the disabled, the economically disadvantaged, amongst different ages.
This process has already begun. The climate of our culture is already beginning to demonstrate a revived consciousness and a renewed sense of responsibility. We need to keep finding new ways to celebrate this change. We also need to understand the deep-seated causes of misogyny which have prevailed in so many cultures for so many generations. To face and learn all the evidence of misogyny—and to abolish it—is to be revived in this present moment of truth.
And to fully participate is to deepen our capacity for right relationship. Here is a vital process that we can practice together. Then we become astonished at how, pursuing whatever the work is that we love to do, we can expand the dimensions of our authentic lives.