In a recent blog (Blog 12/14/2016), I wrote my thoughts about the centuries of patriarchal thinking that have painted women as inferior to men. I referred to women who accepted this view as having a “chattel mind.” That I was guilty of the same misperception became clear when I recently sat down to coffee with a woman at my retirement center.
During our conversation, she shared with me that she had been assaulted when young. Naturally, I asked what happened. She said a man, a stranger, had sat next to her in a darkened movie theater and placed one hand on her thigh. “That’s not an assault,” I snorted. “That’s happened to me dozens of times when I was a kid. Each time it happened, I changed my seat.”
Aware I had trivialized her experience, I tried to explain: “My mom told me to move away when confronted by unwanted attention.”
Looking back on my mother’s advice, I realize moving to another seat and making no fuss gave credence to the old saw, “boys will be boys.” Another assumption was I must have done something to warrant the attention. Done up my hair with too many ribbons, perhaps? Not until the film, 9 to 5, did I see women behaving in a way to suggest being groped wasn’t a burden women had to accept.
Over the years, I’ve experienced various forms of sexual harassment. Sometimes it was an unwanted kiss or a supervisor’s suggestion we take our meeting to a nearby motel. I also know the fake smile researchers say a woman plasters across her face when she’s feeling powerless. A man may mistake that smile for consent, but it signifies the opposite: the hope that by being “nice” the situation will pass as a joke and no one’s feelings will be hurt. (“I Mean, Is There Anti-Murder Training?” by Claire Suddath, Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2016, pgs. 44-49.)
A woman’s reaction to aggression is complex, something men may not understand. First, there is shame. A woman is apt to feel guilty for being the cause of the situation. Second, she’s embarrassed for not standing up for herself. Third, she fears the consequences if she did stand up for herself and file a complaint. Would she be believed? Fourth, a woman, being made of sugar and spice, is hesitant to create bad feelings. As one woman remarked, “I couldn’t make sense of why I continued to feel such empathy [toward the abuser]amidst my anger.” (Ibid pg. 47)
Equally bewildering to men, perhaps, is that a good deal of time may pass before a woman finds her voice. Anita Hill is an example. People held her years of silence against her when she testified in Congress regarding Clarence Thomas’ fitness as a candidate for the Supreme Court. But as she explained, in a professional community “you’re going to have to maintain some kind of relationship.” (Ibid pg. 49) Many women chose to “move on,” wearing their rage internally like a scarlet letter.
As I continue to study the differences between men and women’s minds, I feel a growing confidence that women’s history – their status as inferior members of society — is imprinted on their brains. And if a woman intuitively doubts her capacity to lead, how can she believe in the capacity of other women? Only in this light do I begin to make sense of the last election. 51% of white women and 39% of all women voted for a sexual predator (Click) rather than put their faith in a candidate of their gender.
Originally published 12/22/16)