The #metoo "movement" has shed a fresh light on the patriarchal system that, like it or not, is the foundation of our society. I reluctantly shared the hashtag in support because my personal story is "not that bad." What became clear to me, however, as I reflected on my own experience and more incidents of sexual misconduct have been revealed, is the great loss of talent our society suffers as a result of such abuse.
My personal account of indiscretion is what one might consider tame. No big deal. It was, however, a burden that I carried for years. It's a simple story.
When I was a teenager, my best friend and I worked for a young couple as a sales clerks in their small local retail business. He ran the store and she ran the back office. I adored their marriage and admired their business partnership. As a young girl, I was captivated by the romantic quality of their lives. I watched with fascination as their first baby grew in her belly. My friend and I felt like part of the family. So, when he offered to drive me home after my shift one cold December night, then pulled over, stopped the engine and told me that he "couldn't take it anymore" and he was "so in love" with me, my over developed sense of responsibility immediately kicked in. I'm sure the energy behind my total freeze at the idea he wanted to kiss me (or perhaps something more) stunned him. I said nothing and stared straight ahead. What could I say? What had I done to instigate such feelings? We sat in silence a few moments, then he started up the car again and turned towards the road. Fortunately, he readily accepted that my lack of response meant his passionate confession was going nowhere.
As silly as this story sounds as I recall it today, it was 20 years before I told a soul, including my best friend who I have remained close to. The burden of his secret and the thought that maybe I did something to instigate his desire, stayed with me for a long, long time. I realize now the deeper impact of the shame that I carried as a result of the advances of my "boss." Many years later, I can now see the ways in which his abuse of power undermined my confidence and weakened my potential to excel.
I share this tale of impropriety not only as an example of the behaviors that perpetuate our patriarchal system and disempower women, but as an invitation to reflect on the skill and potential that is lost every time the voice of the transgressed is quieted or put in her place in this way.
More subtle examples of abuse of power and privilege rob the voice of women in this dynamic. Throughout my career there have been times when I have had to ignore sexist comments, sexual jokes and innuendoes, and various degrees of exploitation in the form of bullying in the workplace. The male dominated infrastructure of our institutions, whether it be religion, education, government or the home, demands a certain complicity from women. The greater injustice in the type of sexual advance I encountered is that I believe it set the stage for me to restrain my abilities, downplay my strength and constrain my potential for years afterwards. It was much safer not to be noticed. Each instance of sexual impropriety or abuse chips away at a woman's promise and strengthens an environment that supports denial and dishonesty.
This dynamic that undermines potential is also often prevalent in the home. In most cases, of course, a woman signs onto the marriage agreement with vows before God, making the pact of complicity even more binding. Acquiescence in the face of subtle or insidious abuses of power becomes a safe guard against the turmoil. This pattern slowly undermines a wife and mother's value in the family. It's much easier (and sometimes safer) to stay silent and just keep performing.
In hindsight, it was my innate sense of right and wrong that gave me the courage to resist the advances of my childhood employer. At age 15 it surely wasn't a strong sense of self esteem that dictated my response. In a similar manner, it was this same compliance in the patriarchal structure that undermined my potential as an adult, but clear sense of right and wrong that gave me the strength to claw my way out of an emotionally abusive marriage.
The abuse of power that is implicit in sexual misconduct more than weakens the spirit of women and girls. It undermines a woman's ability to excel and reinforces the constructs of a controlling, male dominated structure. The women who have come forward in the past few months have given our society a tremendous gift by speaking the truth, not only about their experiences, but about the dysfunctional system our society continues to operate under.
Shaking up the current paradigm not only reveals an underlying dishonesty, but sets the stage for all kinds of promise, skill and ability to arise in our young women and the girls now being raised. For this reason, too, we must thank these women for their courage as they share their pain and present the facts. The cultural shift that is created by their brave action offers us much more than just a change in the system, it opens a path for potential to flourish. This, too, benefits us all.
on the sacrifices
of a million women before me
what can i do
to make this mountain taller
so the women after me
can see farther
― Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers
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Susan Ahlstrom generously offers her unique skills and experience to help individuals and organizations connect with opportunity. She is Founder and Director of Duende Networks, LLC, a consulting company that provides coaching and resources for women and youth to identify and build on their strengths to expand their lives. Susan has three grown children and recently moved to RI to be closer to the inspiration and energy of the ocean