Mothers aren’t always the best source of career advice.
When I was 17, I took a summer job as a cashier in the gift shop of a copper mine. The mine, a local tourist attraction, took visitors down into the depths of a vertical mine shaft to show the hardships that miners faced in the early years of the twentieth century. On my first day at work, the owner trapped me behind the counter and tried to grab me. I saw him looming over me, a large, fat man with evil intentions; and I remembered my father’s advice. “Kick him in the ankle.”
I did. It was enough to startle him and throw him off balance, and for me to make my escape. That was the end of my retail career, but I knew—and my father knew—that he couldn’t be with me to protect me, and he wanted me to be able to defend myself.
A World of Bad Men
I bring this up now in response to a recent Op Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, titled “What My Mother Told Me About Bad Men.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-my-mother-told-me-about-bad-men-1511730397. The author repeats the threadbare advice of her mother, to stay out of men’s hotel rooms and says “The whole arrangement is unfair, often predatory and can be degrading, but this is the way of the world.”
She disparages a girl wearing a plunging neckline who holds up a sign saying “’Instead of body shaming girls, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects;’” saying she should know that “The world doesn’t work that way.”
She goes on to cite the “enormous” power imbalance in Hollywood and to say that boys are like babies. They get excited when they see a beautiful girl in the same way that “babies get excited if you jangle a bunch of keys in front of their faces”.
In other words, all of this is normal and to be expected. We should learn to live with it, and anyone who doesn’t accept that “this is the way the world works” is either stupid or naïve or simply asking for trouble.
My question is: why should we accept as given that “this is the way the world works” when the world described is one in which the power imbalance is enormous, boys have the right to act like babies, and girls who show their décolletage are asking for it? Why should we teach our children that “this is reality” when the so-called “reality” defines as normal a system in which male predators are empowered to treat women as prey?
It doesn’t just happen in bedrooms. It happens in boardrooms and storerooms and Congressional offices too. Where do we draw the line between “Never go to a man’s hotel room,” “Don’t go out with a plunging neckline,” and “Only go out wearing a burka,” or “Don’t go out at all.”
What Our Mothers Didn’t Teach Us
Life is full of risks—bad men are one of them. We can’t avoid them, but we can change the balance of power, collectively and over time; by getting more women—and men with better values—into positions of power and influence.
We can change—again, collectively—the norms that require vulnerable women to feel shamed by the risks they take in navigating the perils of building a career in a man’s world.
We can change the attitude which accepts the fact that the world is full of “bad men,” who can operate with impunity because they hold the balance of power.
We can teach our children individually to be strong and to be kind.
If the mothers and aunts who police morality on behalf of men had their way, women would still be trapped in a cage of chastity, modesty and virtue; sitting home doing needlepoint.