Fresh Ideas: Women enduring harassment is nothing new

Recent revelations of sexual harassment don’t surprise me. I, and almost every woman I know, have experienced a man’s uninvited intrusion into our privacy, a fleeting touch or full-on assault. There was the job interviewer, eyes glued to my chest, the crowded bus crawling with furtive fingers, the creep casually slipping his genitals into my fingers, interlaced behind me into an evidently irresistible cup. Sneers, jokes, and outright hostility. Nothing major, right? No big deal, don’t get all worked up, it’s like a compliment.

What makes some men assume a woman welcomes being ogled, assaulted, or insulted?

For generations, many boys have grown up believing they’re “more” than girls. They’re bigger and stronger, and understand “might makes right.” Since “boys will be boys,” misdeeds might be forgiven or ignored. Important, powerful jobs and financial success await them, and sexual success will surely follow. Women, at once mysterious, frightening, and alluring, were inherently less important than themselves, although they provided support on the home front and sexual opportunity. Centuries of this kind of conditioning has led many such men to feel they’re entitled to any privileges power can bring them.

Given these circumstances, women became accustomed to accepting objectification, exploitation, and abuse. Feudal women had no legal status. Some religionists despised us for introducing sin to the world. A husband owned his wife, children, and all the money. She worked as hard, but was paid less than a man. She was expected to keep the household safe and fed, but he could beat her, divorce her and leave her destitute. Despite these difficulties, women who displayed their native intelligence became powerful influences with men of honor.

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women appeared, discussing women’s subordination and social limitations. She faulted education that produced attractive, poised, and suitably humble wives. Lacking the tools to think otherwise, many women cultivated weakness and artificiality, although not all men wanted a shallow companion.

Undoubtedly, an emotional stew of self-doubt, hopelessness, and rage simmered within many an intelligent woman. Efforts to get the vote and run for political office began in Europe and the U.S. in the mid-1800s. New Zealand granted the first national suffrage in 1894, but it wasn’t until 1920 it succeeded in the U.S.

In World War II, our mothers and grandmothers stepped into the jobs that stoked the war machine, serving with intelligence and skill. After the war, however, policy makers in government and business wanted men back to work and women at home. They needed a consumer culture centered in a nuclear family, an economic unit that would be a stable spoke in the wheel of progress. Families need moms to buy things, maintain the home, and have babies. But many women who had experienced independence preferred it.

The Cold War of the 1950s brought a deep dread of Communism, and suspicion spread to anyone and anything unusual, and during that decade fear and paranoia became society’s norm. Women who wanted different lives were no longer accepted. They were now viewed as dangerous: they should be tamed.

The entertainment business wanted the economic security the nuclear family would provide, and took on the challenge of bringing women back home. Movies had flourished in the 1930s, with heroines like Mae West, outspoken and unashamedly sexual. In the 1940s women such as Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth were strong and intelligent, and we began to see (fully clothed) sex scenes (fading to black). Now, they flooded television and films with this new theme, the nuclear family experiencing mild domestic dramas rooted in safe, comfortable, prosperous lives. To lure still-recalcitrant women back into the fold, entertainment executives devised a solution we’re still living with, a story I’ll write about on April 25.

Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.


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