The news that Bill O’Reilly had been fired brought back memories — not just to those women who had worked with the man, but also to those who had never even met him. Women who have had a version of a Bill O’Reilly in their lives — a man in power, who used that power over women with less. Women who have spent years, decades, listening to these stories — from their own friends and colleagues and from accusers of Supreme Court nominees, presidents and candidates, comedy legends, news executives, news anchors.
These memories dampened any feeling of vindication women might have felt at the dismissal of this particular man. Because, they have learned, the attention subsides but the behavior persists. Sexual harassment is already against the law. It’s already against most corporate rules. It already creates outrage when it’s discovered, and it has cost a good number of men their jobs over the years. And yet … here we are again.
What will it take to make it stop?
There was much talk yesterday about technical fixes. Gretchen Carlson, who started the cascade of Fox News dominoes last summer when she sued then-chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, accusing him of firing her because she rebuffed his advances, believes that is a place to start. Yesterday she tweeted, “The only way to end harassment is to shine a light on it. Ask Congress to pass the Fairness in Arbitration Act. No more silencing women!”
There were also calls for more women at higher levels in corporations, to change the culture, as well as enforcement of existing policies, even — especially — when the offender is powerful and high profile.
“Consequences for poor behavior should be predictable, reliable and certain,” Melina Watts, an environmental activist in Calabasas, Calif., wrote during a robust and ongoing discussion on my Facebook page. “Men who didn’t learn this growing up, would soon figure it out.”
But that leads to the glaring question, what leads men to act this way in the first place? And how to counteract that?
My own first memories of the workplace harassment conversation were watching Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, when I was a 30-something reporter at the New York Times — where an editor of mine had once complimented a front page story of mine by joking, “Now people can stop saying you only got this job because you have great legs.”
The next morning, I read Anna Quindlen’s column — one of the ones that would go on to win her the Pulitzer Prize for commentary that year — about women’s feelings of recognition and outrage as they watched.
“Listen to us,” that column began. “You will notice there is no please in that sentence.”
After news of O’Reilly’s dismissal broke, I emailed Anna to ask why so little had changed in 30 years. It has, she said.
“My sons, your sons — they don’t do this,” she wrote back. “There’s much less of this kind of inbred sexism among millennials. Things have changed. The playing field won’t be level but it will be better. And that’s because there has been a continuum. First we didn’t even mention this stuff. Then a few brave souls did and were demonized for it. But now a lot more women speak out, and many more stand behind them, and even corporations, pushed hard enough, act. Maybe when our sons and daughters are running things there will be nothing to have to act upon.”
Maybe. But we have had hope in generational change before. “I thought that would happen with civil rights,” says Jim Carroll, a futurist who is watching this unfold from his office in Toronto, but who notes that Canada too has had its high-profile sexual harassment cases, most notably that of newscaster Jian Ghomeshi at the CBC. “I thought generational change would drive things forward. Looks doubtful.”
That doubt was the root of the muted feelings of victory yesterday, the persistent nagging thought that perhaps the inability to extinguish this kind of behavior is the last — the insurmountable — obstacle to gender parity at work. It’s a dark thought that leads to others — like “Are men really so predatory that Mike Pence is right, and chaperones are the only answer?”
Most women refuse to accept that as the logical endpoint. Why not just “have men’s and women’s subway/train cars, flights, hotels, bars,” Judi Knott, a former publishing executive from Summit, N.J., argues, reductio ad absurdum.
Patty Bashe, who counsels parents of children with Asperger’s syndrome, also rejects the idea that male misbehavior is somehow an immovable obstacle to female equality. At the same time, though, she can’t see her way clear to a more palatable conclusion. Like many women I’ve spoken with in the past 24 hours, she is stuck in a middle place, one of neither victory nor disappointment, but rather a moment to measure how entrenched sexual harassment is in society, how wide is the gulf between male and female experiences in this world right now.
“Too many of us can recall [it] beginning when we were young girls,” she says. “I feel strongly that if men had to endure sexual harassment — if they were aware that women were discussing who we thought was a ‘10’ or if we made remarks like ‘Those pants really show off that package of yours’ — maybe then they’d shut it down. If we could invent a vocabulary of male equivalents of ‘bitch’ and ‘c***,’ maybe they would start to understand what it’s really all about.
“In the end,” she says, “I think that sexual harassment remains powerful because of, and is clearly a proxy for, the very real physical threat we all feel probably every moment out of our home (and for some even inside our homes).”
All of which is why Bill O’Reilly’s departure was a trigger for memories rather than for celebration among women who had thought more would have already changed. Why the announcement was met with sobering acceptance that energy and outrage and organizing are still needed over and over again for common decency to prevail.
The lesson learned yesterday, Bashe says, is that “it’s money that speaks the most effectively and eloquently” to that end. (In this case, money talks for both sides. On the one hand, more than half of the show’s advertisers had pulled out. On the other hand, O’Reilly will leave with what is reportedly “tens of millions of dollars,” another reason why many critics don’t see this as a victory.)
“So be it,” she says. “For now.”
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