By Paula Moyer
Oprah Winfrey nailed it in her recent speech at the Golden Globe awards when she accepted her lifetime achievement award. Yes, we want a world where no one ever has to say, “Me, too” again. But we’re not there yet. In fact, we are so far from there that for a long time, these words from the poet Marge Piercy have captured the way these moments have landed in my heart and stayed:
A strong woman
is a mass of scar tissue that aches
when it rains and wounds that bleed
when you bump them and memories that get up
in the night and pace in boots to and fro.
— Marge Piercy, “For Strong Women”
So much has changed since 1975, the year I began graduate school at Oklahoma State University. This idyllic campus is the location of many of my “me, too” stories. Now, at the beginning of every school year, faculty members and graduate assistants attend a required annual orientation on preventing sexual harassment. I attended this school three years before the first sexual harassment lawsuit was won – therefore, before we had a name for the stares, gropes, and butt swats. Names have power – therefore, not having a name for one’s experience takes power away, tells the survivor: What happened didn’t really happen.
The faculty had one woman – an adjunct professor. Among the 15 or so teaching assistants, all but two were men. I had made the decision too late to apply for financial assistance. Instead, I got a job as the first female letter carrier on campus.
The following is just a partial list of the incidents I experienced or witnessed during the year I was there:
- A faculty member berated a female graduate student in front of all the other guests at a holiday gathering and summed up this dressing down by calling her – well, a vulgar name for female genitalia that begins with a “c” and rhymes with “hunt.” (Over 40 years later, I can’t even bear to type the word.)
- I was flatly told by a fellow graduate student that “no woman has ever gotten a Ph.D. from the history department at OSU.”
- My department was on my route as a letter carrier. Often when delivering mail to my department, I was swatted on the butt by faculty members and fellow graduate students alike.
- At an event that called for getting dressed up, a fellow graduate student interrupted me to tell me that I looked “good enough to rape.”
We had no name then for what was happening. We know now that the perpetrators were laying the cornerstones of a “hostile environment,” a key phrase used in sexual harassment cases.
Regarding the long-term effect of these events, I can only speak for myself. I left OSU for another school and then dropped out. Eventually, I went back to graduate school in creative writing and focused on memoir. But hold off – don’t say, “See? It all worked out.”
I have earnestly tried to not let these stories be part of my material. In fact, it has taken me a long time to write about what happened. When I first tried, several years ago, I got stuck. I felt like a time traveler, trying to describe to a modern audience something from the distant past, like polio epidemics before the vaccine. Then came the revelations of first one celebrity taking liberties with subordinates, and then another, and then the politicians. And then came the “me, too” movement on social media. My heart broke each time one daughter-in-law, and then the other posted their respective stories. I had wanted to help create a world where such remembrances were truly a thing of the past.
Apparently, this speaking out is part of how we bring about that new world: we “silence breakers” are Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Such stories, then, are still relevant. Further, I have to admit, so are annual orientations. The institutions offering the orientations may be flawed and self-seeking, but in this endeavor, they’re on the side of the angels. The speaking out and the laying down of policy may, indeed, help bring forth a place we can lay down the burden of watching our backs. Just as the scourge of sexual harassment has contaminated our writing, the freedom from it will bring fresh air to our material.
Toward that end, let us join forces to banish this pollution from our atmosphere. In this newly clean, newly pure space, may we reclaim our cores, our dreams, our souls — the drive that this tyranny has so wrongly depleted. May we rediscover our focus. May we commit ourselves afresh to our work, our stories. Our precious callings need nothing less.
Paula Moyer is a freelance writer, memoirist, and birth doula living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is currently working on her memoir, An Inheritance of Spirit (working title).
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