My #MeToo moments came and went in silence years ago. But there's hope that re-examining my own response in light of recent events might someday help my daughters make a different choice.
My first conversation with my two daughters about the #MeToo movement and the discussions dominating the news coverage takes place at our dinner table in Bexley. I've been preparing myself for it for several days. Alone with my girls, ages 18 and 20, one in college and one about to graduate from high school, I raise the subject, asking them what they know about the issue. Both are generally aware of the stories, but like so much else in the news today, it feels far removed from their daily lives, like something that might happen to someone else. Both girls make it clear they aren't interested in talking about it either, at least not now and not with their mother.
I press, revealing that I have my own #MeToo stories to share. But surprisingly they aren't intrigued. In fact, they tell me point-blank that they don't want to hear them. Is it because they don't want to think of their mom as a victim? Or perhaps the topic is too uncomfortable for them? As I ponder how to proceed, my younger daughter shows a spark of interest and asks the question I've been dreading, but knew was eventually coming.
“What did you do about it?” Samantha asks pointedly.
I hesitate for just a moment before answering.
It's possible thatI might never have thought of my own sexual harassment experiences again if the Harvey Weinstein story hadn't accelerated the #MeToo movement. The incidents were not forgotten, but buried so deep and for so long that today the particulars are hazy. And I might not, even now, be dredging up those encounters if it were not for the fact that Samantha and Maddy are now close to the age I was when my first #MeToo moment occurred. It's that grim reality that has me not only reflecting, but digging deep—determined to do what I can to spare my daughters the same pain, and, unfortunately, to prepare them for the #MeToo confrontations they, too, may someday face.
Over the last few months I had spent hours reading the accounts of brave women like actresses Ashley Judd and Alyssa Milano recounting their tales of alleged sexual abuse, harassment and assault at the hands of powerful men who, in many cases, held their futures in the balance. I empathized with every victim. I felt their pain and grief, internalized their anger and shame. And like water behind a dam that's held back too much pressure for too many years without enough repair, it was only a matter of time before my own recollections came pouring out, and with them, the complicated mix of emotions that I likely never fully processed all those years ago.
I first shared my experiences with several like-minded female friends in an ongoing text group. As the barrage of sexual assault stories multiplied, our texts turned to the latest round of public accusations against powerful men in the broadcast and entertainment industries. That's when my texts turned personal. I told my friends about the time I went to South Dakota for a job interview, hoping to land my first reporting job.
“The news director came on to me, ”I texted. “There probably was no job. I remember being physically sick in the gross motel that night, alone and scared that he would show up.”
Prior to that text, I had never told a soul that story, not even my parents. I was afraid they would never let me travel to meet another news director again, the first step in securing an on-air reporting job. And while I rebuffed the news director's advances and fled, shaken, I don't recall thinking I was victimized, or even that I should have done something or told someone to possibly prevent it from happening to the next young woman. Instead, I felt stupid and naïve. So I kept quiet. I was ambitious, eager and determined to land that first TV reporting job. That was my focus, not righting an obvious wrong.
As I recounted the story to my friends decades later, I still didn't feel anger or pain or grief. Instead, I felt a strong sense of shame—shame that I'd done nothing.
My second #MeToo encounter was not long after. I was working as a temp at NBC News in New York, assigned to the morning shows (well before the days of Matt Lauer). It was well-known that one of the on-air talents often hit on young women who worked in the news department. I'd heard the rumors, but I felt that surely it would not happen to me. I was still young and, at least in my own eyes, invincible. And the truth was, all I could think about was how this man might be able to advance my career. He took me to dinner at a famous New York City restaurant, where we talked at length about how I could get my first on-air break and how he could help me. When he followed up with an invitation to his home in the country, I accepted. I figured I would be fine as long as my roommate came with me.
This, too, I shared in my group text. “I went to his house in the Berkshires for the weekend with my roommate. It was all fun until he pushed himself onto me in his hallway while we were picking out a movie to watch. Really. I pushed him off and we [my roommate and I] didn't leave our room until we could get to the train in the a.m.”
My text friends offered me the unconditional support I knew they would. But I couldn't shake the shame that sharing these long-ago, nearly forgotten encounters elicited.
I told my friends what was really bothering me, more than 30 years later: “I did nothing to prevent it from happening to someone else. I'm ashamed that I was a coward, too … Time to talk to my girls about all of this.”
Again, Samantha makes it clear that she doesn't want to hear the details of my story, at least not yet. She just wants to know how I handled it.
“Nothing. I did nothing. That's what bothers me the most.”
They don't say it, but I can see the surprise in my daughters' eyes.
I try to explain that was then; this is now. If I found myself in a similar situation today, I'm confident my response would be different. And while calling out harassers has played a pivotal role in many #MeToo testimonies, I'm not interested in calling out mine decades later. I certainly don't remember the news director's name, and the on-air talent is now a very old man. Besides, it is irrelevant to this one-sided discussion and of no interest to my girls. The conversation is closed, and I'm fairly certain that I have let them down. My daughters have come to expect more from me.
I work hard, not just to be a good mother, but to be my daughters' role model: a strong and independent woman who advocates for herself and for those who do not have a voice. An activist. A feminist. A fighter.
So I understand why it's hard for my girls to fathom my past timidity. Why, when it mattered most, didn't I speak up? Why didn't I say something to protect others? After all, I've raised them to have a voice and a choice, to be assertive and to set boundaries. I've encouraged them to take risks, trust their feelings and express themselves, even if it means disagreeing with authority.
As a result, my daughters are leaders long before I ever could be. Like most teens, Samantha has faced her fair share of peer pressure, from boys and girls. But her sense of self is solid and she has the confidence to follow her own path, making decisions that are comfortable for her. Maddy is an outspoken leader who is never afraid to take a stand, voicing her latest outrage. She also asks for help when she needs it and lifts others up when they need it.
Despite a steady stream of sexualized media images and pressure to conform to age-old stereotypes of beauty, my daughters and their friends are much more “woke” than ever before. Technology connects them and spreads their thoughts and ideas. They think for themselves and are aware of social, racial and sexual injustices. They are Gen Z, unafraid to write their own rules, defined by a belief that equality is non-negotiable.
This must all add up, I tell myself, if my girls are ever the victims of sexual assault, violence or harassment. Haven't I adequately empowered them to fight back? Won't they find their voices in order to speak up? Don't they possess the inner strength to seek recourse and demand both justice and equality, not just in the workplace but in every place? Hasn't the #MeToo movement transformed my girls—all girls—making them both stronger and safer?
Samantha's question suggests that it has. “What did you do about it?” It's a question I likely wouldn't have asked so many years ago. But it's my daughter's first. She's jumped right past “How did that make you feel?” to “What did you do about it?”
It's the question of a girl who knows she should fight, both for herself and for others.
I recognize that when I was my daughter's age, fighting was nearly impossible. There was little support in place to deal with sexual harassment, little protocol to report it and few role models to lead the way. Would anyone even have believed me? So I try to forgive myself and focus instead on how far we've come.
I believe that, collectively, we are raising stronger, smarter and braver daughters, women who aren't afraid to tell their stories; women who march for what they believe in and who readily challenge injustice when they see it. And while it may not have come as rapidly as I would have liked, the stunning fall from grace of influential men who use power and sex to control women in the workplace indicates that change is finally taking place.
“It's still taking a while,”wrote a woman in the text group.“Time for more talks with our daughters.”
Indeed. More talks and more action to ensure time is really, finally, up.