Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010
“One of the things that dawned on me from an early age was that life was not fair in terms of gender. My brothers were given permission to do things that I was not supposed to do as a girl. I think that my agenda from age three to ten was to do anything that my brothers could do better than they could. If my brothers could knock a ball down the block, I would practice until I could hit it to the next block. If they climbed a tree 30 feet, I would climb 35 feet. As you can imagine, my Mom and all of the lady neighbors were horrified. Girls my age were supposed to be wearing dresses and doing girly stuff. But the more my Mom tried to limit me, the more I pushed back. When I think back on it, all I can say is my poor mother.
“I do like to think that my pushing the envelope made breathing space for some of the other girls in our mostly Polish and Slavic neighborhood in Silver Spring, and even made it easier for some of the boys to be empathetic towards girls. I didn’t know words like oppression and injustice as a kid, but I knew that some things were just plain mean. That was enough to know that it was wrong.
“I was a product of Catholic schools and the nuns would use humiliation to control our class of 70 kids. One day, a nun took one of the little boys from my class who did something wrong and made him stand in front of the class, holding a stack of hardcover books piled from his waist to his chin until further notice. He started to shake and looked like he was about to cry. I knew that something needed to be done to stop this, but I didn’t have any tools available to me as a seven year old. I just burst into tears and screamed that’s so mean, stop it! That led to half of the class starting to cry and yelling stop it, also. Timmy dropped the books and ran out of the class.
“I always look back on that experience of seeing that there are people who see and experience injustice, but don’t know how to respond. That was a defining moment for me, and one of my first political memories of D.C. Much of the rest of my life has been spent teaching people how to stand up for themselves and fight injustice. In college, I was elected to the student senate and very politically active. I was involved in anti-war protests and sit-ins and got arrested and tear gassed. During that time, I also met my husband. Our first date was going to an anti-war rally.
“After I graduated from Syracuse, I was working on my graduate degree. I bagged the degree and moved to Washington when my Dad died and my brother got shipped off to Vietnam. In 1976, I took a job as an economist at the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB.) The office regulated international cargo tariffs and the airlines. When I walked into the job, it was all white guys. I mean, even the janitor was a white guy. And here I was, this hippie chick.
“I did eventually meet some of the other women working at CAB as accountants. I remember that one of them took me aside early on and said, ‘You are smart, but no woman has ever been promoted above grade 12. Don’t break your heart thinking you can do it.’ Well, I pushed, and it did happen. Furthermore, I formed a CAB women’s committee that men even joined. When I started, 90% of the training budget went to white males. It was so unbelievable because you had women who were in dead-end clerical jobs, but doing 90% of the work. I worked to change things and have those funds shifted towards women and minorities. While we were a small office in the government, we were way ahead of the curve in terms of women and minority rights. Remember, this was in the mid-70′s and women have not won any of the sexual harassment lawsuits yet.
“While I was working for the CAB, I also started volunteering at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. I needed to find balance and community in my life because I was with these white guys all day long. In the 60’s and 70’s, we had the behavior, but not the word harassment. In talking with women, we realized that for every physical assault, there were thousands of verbal assaults. In fact, our research found that most rapes were preceded by some form of harassment. Most rapists look for power imbalances. In case after case, the rapist used harassment to determine if a women would fight back. We wanted to empower women to fight back and not be victims anymore.
“We started analyzing the verbal assaults and eventually built a verbal and physical tool kit for women to respond to harassment. I remember the first time I said to a man, ‘Stop harassing women. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.’ I thought I was going to get killed because women have been taught that if you say anything, it will just get worse. They guy actually responded, ‘Oh, I am sorry maam.’ We then worked to get the D.C. mayor to create a harassment-free city, making D.C. the first harassment-free city in the world. If only what was written on paper made reality happen, but it was still a huge step forward.
“It is very liberating to have spent a chuck of my life working to empower women to not be the victims of harassment and rape. Despite our progress, we still have a lot of work to do. One in six women will experience some kind of sexual assault in her lifetime. For women in college, that number is one in four. The rest of us will have close calls or other experiences with harassment. I have always felt that living free of harassment is a basic human right. One should be be able to walk out of your house and down your street without abuse and fear and humiliation. That is not a human right that women have in any city on this planet currently. I want women to be able to walk down the street and not have to even think about harassment. I also want to see the good guys stand up on behalf of women everywhere. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen sometime in the future thanks in part to the tools and techniques that we developed in this city.”