The last 100 years have seen vast changes in how American women are treated. In 1918, women were legally the property of their fathers or husbands and had virtually no legal standing. In the century since we’ve gained legal independence, the right to vote, equal protection under the law and so much more. But navigating the path to equality has been very difficult.
And, to be fair, this change has been difficult for men also. For generations they were entitled to our property, our power and even our bodies. Now they aren’t. That’s an enormous psychological and sociological shift — and not everyone has fully absorbed the lesson. One unfortunate result of the slow-learners is that, when offenders are called to account for their behavior, their accusers are often deemed suspect and asked why they didn’t speak-up sooner?
I can tell you why.
Though my childhood was awash in double standards, I had good outcomes. During my teen years I had a wonderful male friend who took me rabbit hunting and exploring, though he was surprised that a “girl” wanted to do those things. His sense of masculinity was not threatened. Is it any wonder that I married him? He became a math teacher who felt girls were just as able to learn math as boys. The National Organization of Women visited his classroom and were amazed to see the equal numbers there. Others like him have been an integral part of the gender equality movement.
Nevertheless, males mostly ruled supreme back them. Culturally, male-female roles were precisely delineated. While some women were becoming well educated, antiquated attitudes were still prevalent. My loving father put it very bluntly when he said college money would go to his sons because his daughters would marry and their husbands would take care of them.
Roles were clearly defined for young girls. Part of my childhood was spent on a ranch. Though I was the oldest child, if I wanted to run a tractor, go hunting, repair fence or do other male activities there was a verbal battle. Women were expected to do domestic chores or work in the garden.
Fortunately, my mom was very open about imparting sexual knowledge to her children. That was rare. My father tried but his advice to my brothers was vague on all but one subject: Masturbation would cause blindness, he told them.
Throughout my childhood, I experienced sexual harassment from randy young men. Young girls learned survival skills early. Or else. And even though I could talk to my mother, I often felt it must be my fault these things kept happening and so I was embarrassed to tell her.
For, there was a pervasive attitude throughout society that if boys or men sexually harassed you, it was your fault. Either you didn’t dress properly or your behavior somehow caused it. My girlfriends and I all felt guilty about our sexuality.
One year when I was 12 and went to the family ranch, my aunt’s father was there. He made me feel creepy, but I wasn’t quite sure why. One morning after chores I headed to the river to fish. He showed up and sat uncomfortably close to me. I was instantly on guard but not sure what to do. Next thing I knew he firmly had his hand on my developing breast. I tore loose from his grasp, grabbed my pole and took off down the river.
To this day I remember trying to figure out what to do. Was it my fault? Had I encouraged him. I feared what my uncle’s temper would lead him to do if I told him. And, I loved my aunt. She would be horrified to hear that about her father. Or worse yet, perhaps they would blame me — a young girl attacked by an old man. So, I kept quiet and avoided him.
The same year I bounced a classmate off the locker walls when he latched onto my breasts as I left study hall.
My friends and I shared similar stories with each other as we became young women. We were told explicitly by our elders and implicitly by society at large that it was our responsibility to avoid assault. If lines were crossed, it was often deemed our fault.
Those attitudes are changing, but they haven’t disappeared. And whenever claims are made about offences, those old values surface once again. Inevitably excuses are made for out-of-control male behavior and women are shamed. And, they are shamed by men and women alike, especially from the older generation, with the timeworn, “it is your fault because…” message.
On an election night in the 80s here in Rawlins, for example, a prominent legislator did a grab-ass on a professional woman. She was about two heads shorter but still decked him and proclaimed loudly. “You [expletive] no one touches my body but my husband.” There was a dead silence in the ballroom.
Later, I overheard the wife of another politician condemning her for not discreetly handling it. I interrupted:
“I’ll bet he doesn’t touch her again. We should have applauded her. He’s been doing this for years.”
So, is it any wonder that men are bewildered as they are being called to account for their past assaults, and that women are still reluctant to make their experiences known? Society and countless generations of history fueled men’s sense of entitlement. Sexual harassment was rampant and men were rarely held accountable.
That is why women didn’t tell.
And why we must now listen to them when they do.