Posts tagged “sexism

Majority Rules

In high school, I took a class in civics. There I learned a number of life lessons—some intended, some not so much. For one of our class projects, our teacher told us we were forming a new country on an island. As a class, we would have to decide which laws would govern us.

He split us into small groups, instructing us to brainstorm rules for our new society. Then we’d share our ideas with the entire class and vote on which ones would become law. My group came up with some basics—sensible ground rules common to most civilizations: don’t kill, don’t steal, respect other people’s property. When we were asked to report back to the class, most of the rules discussed were meant to protect the island’s citizens and mirrored the types of laws we have in the United States.

One group of boys came up with a different rule, however. They decided that whenever a girl was on her period, she would be banished to a hut on the far side of the island so no one would have to deal with her being “on the rag.” (I am not making this up.)

As you might imagine, the girls in the class had a problem with this. Not only was the notion crass, it was blatantly sexist and demeaning, which we quickly pointed out. Although we were vocal about our objection to this proposed law, the other boys in class laughed and joined in, agreeing that the rule was a good idea. (Apparently it never occurred to them that offending every girl in the room might mean they’d never get a date for prom. I can’t speak for my female classmates, but it occurred to me, and I vowed I’d never date any of those guys. Life lesson number one: life is too short to date jerks.)

There was only one boy in class who treated us with respect and was brave enough to stand up for us. He said the rule was unfair and tried to get the other guys to stop being sexist. I can only imagine the grief he got later for his troubles, but I felt gratitude for his courage and disgust that no other guy in the room stood with him.

I thought our instructor would come to our defense, turning a negative situation into a teachable moment by speaking about equality. He didn’t. Instead, he put the matter to a vote. “Majority rules,” he said.

This only exacerbated the situation because there were more boys than girls in the class. Even with our one male ally, the motion passed easily and became law.

While I understand that the teacher was trying to provide a lesson on democracy, I learned something different. I learned that a majority vote can create both good laws and unjust laws. A majority vote doesn’t mean all citizens are treated equally. Laws can be used to discriminate against vulnerable populations. I also learned that you can’t always count on adults to do the right thing. Sometimes you have to advocate for yourself. Sometimes you have to gain allies to support your cause and then fight to make better laws.


© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016


This week Donald Trump made a comment to USA Today that if his daughter Ivanka were sexually harassed in the workplace, he hoped she would find a different company or career. The problem with this, as victim advocates quickly asserted, is many workers can’t just quit their jobs if they are harassed at work. They don’t have the financial resources to be without work, and it takes time to find a new position. Having a gap between jobs or a history of changing jobs can penalize job seekers. In addition, finding a new career can be expensive if you have to get more training or certifications. Most of us don’t have a wealthy father who can simply carve out a position for us in the family business, should we decide to leave our current positions.

And here’s the other thing: why should a victim of sexual harassment have to leave their job? Companies have a responsibility to protect workers and take action when employees encounter a hostile workplace.

Trump’s son, Eric, came to his father’s defense, stating that his sister is a “strong, powerful woman” who wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to harassment. This is a disservice to anyone who has experienced harassment because it places blame on victims, suggesting they “allowed” themselves to be harassed. Sexual harassment is not the victim’s fault. It’s about a predator feeling entitled to another person’s time, space, and body. Harassment can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not. It doesn’t matter what you wear to work. It doesn’t even matter what gender you are, because yes, males can also be victims of sexual harassment. Because men are “supposed” to be physically stronger than the person who harassed them, they may be more hesitant to come forward.

I know both men and women who have been harassed, and it has not been easy for any of them to speak about their experiences. There’s a great deal of shame. Victims tend to blame themselves, wondering what they could have done differently. They worry that reporting will get them fired, and sometimes it does. It’s not legal to fire somebody for reporting harassment, but it happens. You could take your employer to court over it…if you had the money for legal fees.

Even if you do everything you’re “supposed” to do—even if you dress professionally and set boundaries—you can still receive unwanted comments or touching, and employers don’t always do what they’re required to do to help you. Unfortunately, I know this all too well. Here’s my story.

The summer after my first year of college, I took a retail job in a shoe store. I was nineteen.

I knew not to hitchhike or get in a car with a stranger, and I knew the best way to deal with catcalling was to ignore it and keep walking. I knew to check my backseat before driving at night, to make sure nobody was hiding there. I knew not to stay out too late, and to lock the door to my apartment when I got home. I knew that if I followed all these rules, I’d be okay.

I was utterly unequipped to deal with harassment at work.

Work is supposed to be safe. You do your job and you get paid. You dress modestly. You don’t cause waves with your co-workers and you show your boss respect. You are polite to everyone, especially customers. Because the customer is always right.

Except sometimes the customer is wrong.

My duties in the store were to unpack shipments of new shoes, place them on shelves and in displays, assist customers, ring up purchases, and, at closing time, straighten shelves and then mop and vacuum the store. The store was located at the end of a strip mall, with windows across the front and one of the sides of the store. As a joke, I called it the fishbowl, because it felt like anyone in the parking lot could see everything going on in the store.

I felt safe there at first, even when we experienced a series of shoplifting incidents. Nobody was threatened or hurt—the thieves would simply grab a pair of shoes and take off. The boss instructed us not to run after shoplifters, but to report the incident to her.

Then a man started coming to the store. He wasn’t much older than me. The first time he came, he asked for my assistance as he chose a pair of shoes from the shelf. As I helped him, he asked me out. Flustered, I told him, “No thanks, I have a boyfriend.”

He started coming in more frequently. He would buy shoes and come in the next day to return them. After a while, he didn’t even buy shoes in his size. Once he bought a pair of children’s shoes. I knew he wasn’t going to wear those, and I seriously doubted he bought them for someone else. He returned that pair as well.

Each time he came in, he asked me out. Even though I told him no repeatedly, he persisted. He would follow me around the store, trying to touch my arms, my shoulders, whatever he could get away with. I stopped being polite. When I saw him coming, I would immediately make myself busy, talking with other customers, surrounding myself with people so he couldn’t corner me at the back of the store. He’d try talking to me and I’d walk away, quick to engage with the next customer. Sometimes I couldn’t walk away, because I was working the register. He’d stand there staring as I rang up other people’s purchases.

I told my boyfriend about the man harassing me, and I told my parents. But what could they do? They suggested I quit, but I needed the money for college, and there wasn’t time to get another job before school started. They told me to report the guy to my boss. I did. It didn’t help.

When I told my boss about the man, she brushed off my concerns. She said, “Well, I guess you can work in the back when he comes in.” That was it. So, the next time the man came to the store, I identified him to my boss and went to work in the back, unpacking a shipment. As I stood there, taking shoes out of boxes, I realized I couldn’t hide in the back of the store each time the guy came in. If I did, I’d lose my job. More than that, I felt shame for hiding. I felt like a coward.

Truth is, I was frightened. Each night I closed up shop, I had a co-worker watch as I got into my car. I’d quickly run across the parking lot, check the back seat, jump inside, and lock my doors. Then, as I’d drove home, I’d watch to make sure no one was following me. I’d hurry into my studio apartment where I lived alone, lock my door, and set up an electric alarm my boyfriend bought for the door. Anybody who tried to come in while it was armed would be treated to a blaring earful. I slept with a can of pepper spray on my nightstand, a baseball bat beside my bed, and a carving knife between the mattress and box springs—all within reach if I woke to find him breaking in and didn’t have time to call the police. I didn’t sleep much, but I was ready to defend myself. Terrified and paranoid, but ready.

The harassment finally stopped, but not because anything I did made it stop. It didn’t stop because my company stepped up to protect me, because they didn’t. I don’t know why I never called the cops. The person I am now would have, but at the time I was just a scared kid. I guess I was afraid of going over my boss’s head. Since she hadn’t helped me, maybe the police wouldn’t either.

The last night I saw this man at the store, he came in to ask me out once again, and as always, I told him no and walked away to help other customers. He left, only to return after we’d closed down the register and locked the doors.

I was mopping the front of the store when he walked up to the glass in front of me. He knocked on the window, trying to get my attention. I saw him and immediately looked away, pretending I didn’t see him. I mopped the floor, refusing to look at him even though I could feel him staring at me.

He stayed there the entire time I mopped. I finished the job and took the mop and bucket to the back of the store to empty it. When I came back out to vacuum, he was gone.

I was frightened he’d come back when I tried to leave the store, that maybe he was waiting for me in his car. With the lights on in the store, I couldn’t see much of the dark parking lot. I felt more vulnerable than ever in the fishbowl, knowing he could see me, but I couldn’t see him.

Thankfully, I only saw him one other time. He was hanging out with a group of guys in front of the student union at my college. School had started and I quit my job at the shoe store to focus on academics. When I spotted him, I walked away as quickly as I could so he didn’t see me. The realization that he attended the same university filled me with dread, but our paths never crossed again. The next summer, I took a different job.

It’s not easy for me to share this with you. I still wonder what I should have done differently. But I think it’s important that we talk about these things, because the more we share about our experiences, the more empowered other people will feel to speak up. And I do want people to feel empowered. I never want anyone to feel as scared, vulnerable, and helpless as I felt. I never want anyone to feel like they weren’t “strong enough” or they “allowed” themselves to be harmed. Maybe if we keep speaking about these experiences, we can change perceptions about what it means to be victimized and how we can hold employers and aggressors accountable.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016

Beautiful Women

This post is less about politics and more about critical thinking. I’m not going to tell you who you should vote for—that’s your prerogative. I will challenge you to think critically though. Dr. Eskue Ousley is dusting off her Ph.D., so you’ve been warned. If you’re okay with thinking about tough issues, read on.

This week I read an article where Donald Trump stated, “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote.” He went on to say, “The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.” My point is not to defend Clinton (she’s capable of doing that herself, and already has), but to say that Trump has a history of making misogynistic statements. He also has a history of making generalizations.

What’s a generalization? Allow me to explain it using an example from grad school. I had this fantastic mentor at the University of Arizona named Gary Rhoades. He’s a brilliant professor with a gift for telling stories. One day his young daughter threw a banana at him. He got on to her about it, telling her not to throw things at people. Her response? “But Daddy, all little girls throw bananas.” A generalization is a concept inferred from specific cases. However, as in the above example, it may not be grounded in facts. It should be, if it aims to be credible.

Back to Trump—he too is making a sweeping statement (on par with a justification for throwing fruit), but where are the facts? What’s his source for saying a candidate would get five percent of the vote? Is he citing a poll? Has he done quantitative research, conducting surveys with representative samples? Doubtful. In all fairness, other people make generalizations as well. I daresay we all do (and that’s a generalization right there).

But what, exactly, is the “woman’s card”? I guess he is saying the only reason women will vote for Clinton is because she is a woman. Maybe some women will vote for her because of that. I cannot speak for other women voters, but I feel confident I can choose the candidate who best represents my interests without regard to gender. I also feel confident there is no force in hell that would make me vote for somebody who vomits sexist comments like he’s got diarrhea of the mouth, but I said I wasn’t going to tell you who you should vote for, and I won’t tell you who you shouldn’t vote for.

I would like you to think about those sexist statements, however, and to consider how even small aggressions based on gender affect society. (By the way, aggressions can go both ways, and they are not harmless.) We’ve lived in a world where rules were made based on gender. Some things have changed, to be sure. That’s why I have more education than my great-grandmother did.

There are some things that still need to change. I would like to see a world where my great-granddaughter can walk down the street without being harassed because she happens to be female. I would like her to never experience the fear she could be abducted and raped because some man drives past her as she’s walking alone, and tries to convince her to get into his car. That happened to me when I was a teen. The guy drove slowly past me, and when I crossed the street to avoid him, he turned his car around and followed me. He stopped when I entered the parking lot of a shopping center, where there were other people. This didn’t happen in a big city, rife with crime. It happened in my small, supposedly safe home town. The real tragedy? Every woman I know has a story like this. This is not a generalization. This is qualitative research, supported by quantitative research.

Pink UnicornI would like to live in a world where I form my own definition about what it means to be beautiful. Beauty is, after all, subjective. It is in the eye of the beholder. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve observed that Trump often makes statements about beauty. He seems obsessed with the topic, using the phrase “beautiful women” and ranking women by attractiveness. To my ears, “beautiful women” sounds like some kind of sacred voting demographic, or perhaps a type of mythical beast, too ethereal for the likes of us lesser mortals. If you want to have a laugh, read his quotes, substituting the word “unicorns” for this phrase. As in: “I tend to like unicorns more than unattractive women.” Or “I love unicorns and unicorns love me.” Ridiculous, isn’t it?

I know beautiful women. They are smart and kind, and because of that, they are beautiful in my eyes. I believe Trump’s definition has nothing to do with intelligence or character. I suspect it has to do with genetics and surgery. I’m not against genetics or surgery. If your DNA has provided you with highly symmetrical facial features, good for you. If you feel you can’t be beautiful without altering your body, go for it. Who am I to tell you what to do with your body?

Do whatever makes you feel beautiful, whatever your gender. Wear what you want. Wear makeup. Or don’t wear makeup. Plank. Or don’t plank. But don’t tell me I can’t be beautiful because I choose to do something different, or because I believe being educated is part of what makes me beautiful. I’m certain I’ll never make Trump’s list of beautiful women, and I don’t care. Why would I even want to be on that list? It’s demeaning. He can say anything he wants (and he does), but that doesn’t define me as a woman or a voter. Like I said, I’ll vote for the person who best represents my interests.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016