The story begins a few months ago with another Fresh U article I wrote about catcalling: My dad suggested I send it to Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox news anchor who fights to end sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace. To my surprise, she responded to my email and thanked me, then told me about her college tour for her new book, Be Fierce, and that USC was actually one of the stops. Two months later, I’m sitting in Town & Gown on campus and listening to her speak about her book, her experiences, and her work.
I would be lying if I said I haven’t thought about future workplaces of which I may be a part– in terms of sexual harassment. I know not to walk in afraid and vulnerable, but I also know it is not a demeanor that begs assault. It can happen to anyone. After leaving Carlson’s talk and feeling inspired, I texted my mother, and she said, “It was always a bit of dilemma for me: I wanted to warn you, but I didn’t want you to be afraid of life.” I am sorry to every mother that has ever had such a thought. I am sorry to every mother or father that has debated telling their children about their own experiences. Hopefully the men, and sometimes women, of my generation will do better.
“Courage is a building process.” I could tell that her calm, pensive words were half drawn from personal experience and half from the stories of the thousands of women she has spoken with in her fight. I think of my own self five years ago– I was more vulnerable, cared far too much what people thought, and didn’t believe in myself enough. I have miles to go in terms of courage, but I have come a long way since fourteen. I have yet to find a person that does not care at all about some level of social approval, myself included. Maybe it’s a part of life. Maybe other people are just better at hiding it.
Carlson said that her coping mechanism, or tactic, to make the harassment she dealt with go away was to work harder. But she realized that no amount of hard work will make a coworker or boss less disposed to sexually harassing her– and that determination and desire operate on two different playing fields. I realized from my own experience that when things were hard for me emotionally, I would use it as fuel for schoolwork. My grades actually almost went up. I let it become a time for me to distract myself from my own mind and focus on something else, and working harder made me feel stronger. Unfortunately for Carlson and millions of other women, working harder didn’t stop it.
What resonated with me most was when she began to talk about steps to take post-incident. She said it was important that victims tell someone, at least one other person, of what happened. In case they decide to take legal action, they could provide a witness. It seemed to be that the coping aspect of the incident functioned almost like a court case in itself– it was the woman’s job to pay attention, remember details, and identify potential witnesses. On top of the psychological burden she was carrying and handling, she felt defeated and powerless, all while trying to be her own strongest advocate.
But Carlson also asks the real questions, and extends her fight from famous and rich women to the everywoman. She asks, “What about the single mom?” And to answer her own question, she told the audience of a program she started: A 9-city, 3-day (each) workshop for underprivileged women, completely free. They would learn about sexual harassment in the workplace, how to handle it if it ever happens, and how to proceed if one decides to press charges. In hearing the stories of thousands of women, she realized that there is a psychological burden for every one that deals with it, but there are more barriers in the way for underprivileged and low-income women, employees that have far more to lose if they choose to speak up.
When asked about the #MeToo movement and how widespread it has become, Carlson confidently said, “There’s no such thing as overkill.” And I agree. Any movement has the potential of getting out of hand or becoming violent. The vast majority of women who come forth with sexual assault stories are not lying. There will always be outliers. But there will never be too much support, too much coverage– there will only be too many stories to tell. For every woman that has ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, your time is now. Or whenever you’re ready.
Carlson struck me most as being relentlessly unapologetic. She commanded the room in a way that made people not only want to do more, but made them feel like they should. As if being a bystander and a passive activist was a thing of the past, and that choosing to not take action meant siding with the perpetrator. It was during the duration of her talk that I realized stories inspired change– the raw emotion in personal anecdotes, setbacks, and victories was uniting and inspiring, capable of changing a culture and the world.
Lead Image Credit: ABC News