I am concerned about the current firestorm of sexual misconduct allegations being dealt with in little more than trial by media.
Not because I doubt in any way that it occurs; but because necessary due process and conscientious investigation seem to be missing. A complaint is made one day and on the next day an individual is fired. In some cases this may be both appropriate and necessary but certainly not in all cases. A rush to judgment can validate dishonest accusations and can also give us a false sense of security. In 90 days or less the media blitz will be over and our interest will wander to some new outrage. These high-level media events will not change the discrimination and harassment that all women experience at some point in their lives and have experienced throughout history. Sexual harassment is just a piece of the discrimination picture.
When my Grandmother was born women could not vote, hold property, retain custody of their children in a divorce or successfully leave a husband who raped or abused them. When I was born women could not buy a car without a man, lease an apartment, get credit in their own name, or be protected from physical abuse from a mate. I went to college with the idea that I would be a teacher because teacher was one of the few professions open to me as a woman. I loved history, but my dream was to become a lawyer — pretty much out of the question in those days for a woman without perfect credentials, perfect test scores and perfect parents who could afford law school. None of which I had.
I never did become a teacher. In one of my first jobs out of college I was the only woman executive in the Rocky Mountain Region of Community Action Agencies. I was one of a handful of women executives nationally. I was asked to make coffee more than once, and I did because my culture and my upbringing told me I should. Every degree and every job was an uphill climb as a woman and I was grateful for any opportunity.
Finishing law school, years after my first degree, I was let go from an office after two excellent evaluations because they really needed someone to “answer the phones” more. I allowed that I didn’t go to law school to answer phones. And how grateful I am to have lost that job because the work that came after has been a joy. But none of it was easy for women of my age.We all fought discrimination in the job market, sexual harassment, demeaning workplaces, and a culture that regularly diminishes women. Even though things have changed, many women still suffer egregious discrimination, violence and harassment.
While women are almost half of the workforce in Fortune 500 companies they made up only 4 percent of CEOs and 16 percent of senior management in 2016 . Women in the US bring home 79 cents for every dollar a man makes and in Wyoming women bring home only 64 cents for every dollar compared to men. According to the National Organization for Women one-third of all women in the U.S. who are murdered are murdered by a spouse or intimate partner — an average of three a day. Another 4.8 million women are either raped or assaulted by an intimate partner every year. And 600 women a day are raped or sexually assaulted. The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during her college years.
All of that is to say that the current turmoil was not born in a vacuum. The culture that nurtured, tolerated and continues to enable such discrimination and repression is, in part, responsible for the explosion of sexual misconduct claims we’re seeing today. I feel some compassion for men who having been told over and over in television, movies, music, politics and religion that harassing, demeaning, and generally abusing women is acceptable, are suddenly being brought to task for that behavior.
We elected the leader of our country after he carelessly stated that he criminally sexually assaulted women on a regular basis. Why wouldn’t men in power in our country, whether it was the star football player or the supervisor at McDonald’s, think that they could do the same? They have watched women be demeaned and treated as second-rate citizens since they were born.
Of its 90 members the Wyoming Legislature has seven women legislators. The U.S. Congress is comprised of 19.4 percent women. In 2017, with House Bills 116 and 182, Wyoming legislators effectively argued, once again, that women were too stupid to make their own medical decisions and that the state (men for the most part) had the right to make medical decisions for them and to control their bodies. This goes on daily all over our nation.
In the ’70’s we recognized that women needed the Equal Rights Amendment to help achieve a necessary level of equality. We knew women needed paid maternity leave and subsidized child care to excel in the workplace. We knew women who were homemakers and mothers needed social security and health care benefits as they performed socially vital work in the home.
Women still need access to professions and jobs that pay a living wage; Far too many women still labor in “women’s work” that has never provided a living wage. Women need affordable education opportunities. And women need available, affordable reproductive health care without government interference.
Denying women equal rights, reproductive freedom, fair wages and educational opportunities perpetuates the cycle of repression. Sexualizing women in the media tells men it is acceptable to grab women by their genitals, force or blackmail them into sex and then shame them if they complain. This is not the fault of a few men or even many men — we are all guilty of continuing a culture that treats women as less valuable than men.
Linda Burt was the executive director of the Wyoming American Civil Liberties Union for 15 years. She has been a lobbyist and state political candidate.