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On Misogyny: The Happiness Factor

As women, we’ve all had our “aha moments. Mine came when I watched Anita Hill testify at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in the early Nineties. I found nothing she said fantastic or unbelievable; in my experience, it all seemed like it could easily have happened.As I listened to her testimony, I realized that what I had been subject to a dozen years ago, was also sexual harassment by a colleague. And as a young writer and editor, new to the world of magazines, I felt so grateful to have landed such a plum job that I was sure that the harassment was just something had to put up with. It was not yet illegal; no one else complained; the harassment did not threaten my job as he did not have the power to fire me, but it did form a hostile environment.

Yet because I knew a word from him in the right ear ould jeopardize my position, I was cool. Not a tattletale, not a bitch, not even a whiner.

And to prove to him that I wasn’t really bothered by his remarks, or the way he touched me unnecessarily, that I could “man up” with the best of them, when he asked for a volunteer to do research with him on an article at a sex club, I offered myself. The club, a poor Boston imitation of the famed New York Plato’s Retreat, had just opened in the city and caused a stir. But by committing that very foolish act of going with him, there was no way I could have ever cried foul on my harasser. I think I sensed that as soon as I did it.

The research made me sick, and the incident of my misguided complicity mortified me so much that I never mentioned it to anyone or written about it until now. I was complicit in my harassment, just as they accused Anita Hill of being when she did not quit. But that doesn’t mean that what happened to Hill and me and millions of other women wasn’t wrong. There was no recourse, however; nowhere, at the time, did anyone have anything real to say about just how hard it was for women to play with the boys without getting hurt or having to quit a job they liked.

The “aha moment” of realizing I had been badly harassed I did share with girlfriends, all of whom admitted that they, too, had put up with instances of degradation and humiliation by men just to stay working at a job for which they were trained and well-qualified.

Although the word “sexual harassment” had been used sometime before the mid-Seventies, it was not a commonplace term. And none of us, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, as much as we might have called ourselves feminists, felt strong enough to push back. Now, I like to think most of us would. But back then we were young and fragile and the truth was that we didn’t have complete confidence in our own abilities , even if someone else had had faith in us and hired us; we weren’t ready to really like ourselves that much. We hadn’t gotten to the place where we felt confident enough in our strengths and our power as people—not just women—to call the bluff of the men who harassed us.

I posit here that men who harass, who threaten and bully, who create hostile work environments don’t really want to be so afraid of losing their job that they bully and threaten; but I think it is that fear of losing their main identity that guides them. It is a power struggle born of fear.

Their bullying and sexual innuendo, their improper touch, come from the misguided notion that work is all they ultimately have to show for their life, so they guard its parameters, its perks, and precious status, like bulldogs. I also believe that their own insecurity makes them both unwilling to truly accept women as professional equals—or even a real people—which ultimately too often leads to harassment. This has more to do with men’s lack of confidence in themselves and lack of he knowledge as to what makes a meaningful life than it does with innate arrogance or mere centuries of privilege, things to which men’s power have been tied.

The difficulties between men and women in the workplace are nothing new: When women begin encroaching on their territory, men always get their collective back up. In the Forties, men took the jobs back from the women who had done them while they were away fighting a war. In the Sixties men demeaned and diminished any woman who had the gall to think she could do what they did; and they made her fight for every inch. The sexual harassment was so blatant that there’s a popular television show that centers a lot of their plot around it. The Seventies weren’t much better for women. And despite increased awareness of the concept, the term “sexual harassment” wasn’t even used officially until 1986. Theoretically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected women (and others) from such persecution wherever it occurred, but the enforcement of that Act toward that affect was minimal.

Even with increasingly stringent guidelines against sexual harassment, complaints are hard to file. There is a mountain of paperwork as well as the responsibility of proof; and before one even files a complaint, one is encouraged to confront the harasser and ask him to stop. Complainants can be as ostracized as whistleblowers. Too, and extremely unfortunately, as women have climbed the ladder and gained more power, especially over other women beneath them, they have often resorted to their own kind of harassment, not exactly sexual, but falling in to the same category: a sort of female bullying that harks back to junior high school and creates a “hostile environment,” one of the criteria for a harassment case.

If woman soon learned that imitating men in their workplace dress was dumb (remember the whole woman’s suit and “tie?”) they should immediately stop imitating men’s bad behavior.

In fact, they would do well to bring one of their most peculiar attributes to bear on the workplace. The simple and profound idea that a job does not provide the ultimate happiness in life. A job, even a perfect job, does not define you.

The recent recession has shown clearly however, that men’s egos are so tied into just being employed, that they have even resorted to suicide and murder when let go. They are mortified when their wives, often still employed, are supporting the household: they become emasculated and depressed. And angry. The loss of pride in themselves is huge. Because work is what they have. Work is what too often is who they think they are. Women may not be much happier than men all around, but at least they aren’t deluded into thinking that their work is the most important thing in their lives.

Perhaps this is over-simplifying the issue of harassment in the workplace but I think it can be reduced to something as simple as recognizing the elements of personal happiness: for both men and women; but especially for white men who continue into today to rail against women “taking their jobs,” and “making the workplace not fun anymore.” Because they have always had the bulk of the power at work and in the government running our lives, it has never occurred to them that they might not actually deserve it. It has taken a very long time for men to even admit that a woman may be as qualified or more qualified than a man—the truth is, that as a noted feminist said, true equality will only come when incompetent women rise as fast as incompetent men which is a long way off. And even admitting that women might be able to do the job well doesn’t mean she won’t get harassed. But it is supposedly men’s biological imperative to get a job and make a living, and their both their personas and egos are so wrapped up in that imperative that it becomes something they must do at any cost.

And yet it does not have to be so.

In the groundbreaking Grant Study, compiled by Dr. George Vaillant, and reported in several different publications, including a recent Atlantic Monthly, 268 Harvard graduates were followed and studied for seven decades. As Spiritual Wealth quotes the report: “From the beginning, the Grant Study was meant to be exhaustive. Harvard researchers assembled a team that included medical doctors, physiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, anthropologists and other specialists. Over more than seven decades, participants were monitored, interviewed and studied from every conceivable angle, including eating and drinking habits, exercise, mental and physical health, career changes, financial successes and setbacks, marital history, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age. They were subjected to general aptitude tests and personality inventories, and were required to provide regular letters and documentation

And what was eventually discovered?

While no small number of the men were hugely famous (John F Kennedy, Ben Bradlee, for examples) and most, by any account “successful” in their work, Dr. Vaillant found “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Career accomplishments, getting to the top, accumulating wealth and things: those are not the measure of happiness.That old adage of being on your death bed and not wishing you had spent more time at work seems to be true.

So why do men fight so hard to keep their status and their place in the workplace? Why are their egos so tied into what kind of job they have, how much money they make, and how far they climb up the ladder that anyone, especially a woman, who gets in their way, needs to be shoved aside, made fun of, or ridiculed? Is it biology, pride, solipsism? And can it be overcome?

It seems it can, if one takes to heart the Grant Study results. In studying the men (which took place over 74 years, beginning before Vaillant came on board), “the central question {of the study} is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality,” said the Atlantic Monthly.

In other words, men’s ability to cope with both the ups and downs of their lives and the relationships they form during those ups and down, those are what will define them—not mere success in the area of employment or bringing home the bacon. Those, along with physical factors such as not smoking and drinking, can make life and the aging process a happier one.*

In addition, says the article in the Atlantic, “It is social aptitude, “not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging.” Warm connections are necessary—and if not found in a mother or father, they can come from siblings, uncles, friends, mentors. The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response again: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

But if men, against all evidence to the contrary, continue to invest their persona, self worth and eventual happiness solely in what they do on a job—whether it be glamorous or ordinary—then they will continue to feel insecure and threatened when women come into their workplace. They will continue to make life hard for everyone, instead of working cooperatively. They will jealously guard their power positions, no matter how lowly, from any encroacher. Harassment will not go away, I believe, until people value people more than power. *

There is interesting new brain research on coping and changing and resilience: