“The best protection any woman can have is courage.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton
When I was in sixth grade, either God or genetics saw fit to gift me with the most developed body of any girl in the school. I didn’t think much about it, having the mind of a child, but I happened to catch the eye of Bobby, an entitled fifth-grade boy on the playground. He approached me, smirking, pinched one of my breasts, and ran away, laughing with his posse.
I walked home that afternoon, angry, frustrated, violated, and powerless. I spoke of the incident to no one, but the anger in me conceived a plan for his next attempt.
Within a week, he sidled up to me and repeated his action. I, towering above him, pulled my arm back and slapped his fifth-grade face so hard his glasses flew off. He avoided me after that. Honestly, it was one of my best days in sixth grade.
The small Christian college I attended had a lovely wooded campus. On pleasant evenings, I went for a quiet walk along the unlit sidewalk. The security guard, a kind seminary student, usually happened to catch me on his rounds, and we enjoyed a walk together.
Then one of my close friends told me, in detail, of her sexual assault on those same dark grounds. I knew she wasn’t the only one, but not once were we alerted to the danger. The small student body could hardly have kept secret the identity of the victims, and the shame would surely have compounded the pain of violation.
I realized that my security guard friend was quietly protecting me. And I wondered—if the assaulted women had not been taught to bear the shame of sins that were not their own, if we had been made aware of our peril, how many more assaults might have been prevented?
In my first post-graduation workplace, I assumed I was entering a world of adults. The maturity I expected in my workmates turned out to be fairly non-existent. The Bobbys had gotten older, but not necessarily more mature or respectful. The rules for women had changed though. Off-color comments were ignored, greeted with pleasant laughter, or even met with like-minded comments.
The company hosted monthly dinners for management and sales force. It was a monthly occurrence for me to be “accidentally” groped and regularly propositioned. “He’s just drunk,” I told myself. “He won’t remember this tomorrow.”
When I tired of politely fending off the propositions of a fellow manager, I complained to my boss, explaining what I felt was a violation of my dignity. He sat at his desk, looking out the window as he composed himself, hardly able to contain his laughter, as he promised to “talk” to his employee.
What had happened to that angry sixth-grade girl who so decidedly defended herself?
4. Cognitive dissonance
I had been taught to be “nice” and untaught to follow the impulse that caused young me to slap Bobby’s face.
Somewhere during my socialization process, I learned that men were more important than women, that the worth of a woman was dictated by her body, and that I was responsible for protecting myself while simultaneously guarding the egos of the men I worked with.
I wondered, “If I am an equal, why do I feel like a victim? And why do I have the responsibility to avoid or to politely decline?”
5. Truth, exposed
Like the little boy who exclaimed that the emperor had no clothes, women eventually began to speak, not just to one another, but publicly, about the disrespect they had endured. As their voices gained momentum, what had been “no big deal” became a very big deal. Men lost their jobs, their respect, and ultimately, their power.
And I, fully indoctrinated, looked at some with sympathy. “The rules have changed, guys, and they’re retroactive,” I thought.
Now out of the work force for years, I see the hope for an equality that never before existed. Men and women must learn a new normal: women must learn to demand respect, and men, to give it.
I’m proud of the young me who had the courage to slap Bobby and sorry for her gradual loss of self-esteem. Now, I have seven granddaughters, and I am hopeful for their future.
Marcia Thomas lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband of 39 years. She has raised four handsome, self-actualizing sons. She has found healing in exploring her story in the presence of others and treasures the opportunities she has to be that presence for others. She is surprised and pleased to find that the glad work of healing does not have a retirement age.