About a month before I was set to defend my dissertation — the final hoop I had to jump through to finish my PhD — I went to talk to one of the professors who was going to be on the defence committee. When I got to his office, he was lounged back in his chair with his feet on his desk, completely at ease. He waved me to the office’s only other chair, which was positioned at the corner of the desk where he’d perched his feet. He didn’t move his feet when I sat down, which meant that our entire discussion took place while I was at eye level with the soles of his shoes.
This professor’s behaviour didn’t surprise me; his disdain for female graduate students was something of an open secret in the department. I knew his actions were rude, but I didn’t complain, and neither did any other woman who’d been insulted by him. We all knew that if we complained, we ran the risk of being thought of as trouble-makers, and that could result in lowered grades, negative recommendations, or even the loss of fellowship funding.
Decades later, I still remember the rubbed soles of his shoes, the paunch of belly that spread across his chair, his rubbery pink face drawling about the “lady authors” I was writing about.
It was a small moment, and one that did not on the surface impede my progress: I passed my defence, received my degree, went on to publish books, got tenure. But the memory of the sting remains: I mattered so little that he didn’t even need to take his feet out of my face. If I were writing the fairy-tale version of this column, talking to this rude man’s shoes would be the only encounter of this sort I’d ever experienced, but of course, it was neither the worst nor the only such incident in my life — and every woman I know has similar stories, stories that run the gamut from “rude” to “gross” to “life-threatening”.
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One of the worst stories to surface recently is that of Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor for the US Olympic team, who was recently sentenced to 175 years in prison for his decades-long abuses of young women and girls, many of whom spoke in court about the damage he caused. If anything good can come out of this case, other than Nassar going to prison, it's perhaps that speaking out about abuse will no longer be seen as "trouble-making".
I fear, however, that there might be another reaction to the seemingly endless revelations about sexual assault and misconduct: that young girls will have their freedoms curtailed in efforts to keep them "safe." What if parents and teachers decide that it's safer to keep girls away from the gym, the debate table, the stage, the lab, lest they encounter men (or boys) who might hurt them? I can imagine people thinking that maybe things were better when women were "on a pedestal," but as Gloria Steinem once pointed out, the problem with a pedestal is that it's a very confined (and confining) space.
In the swirl of public debate and conversation that has erupted in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and others, however, I'm not hearing enough discussion about how we might educate boys so that they don't become men who think about people only in terms of how to dominate them. Did these men in the news, or my rude dissertation adviser, never get those lessons from the playground about sharing your toys, taking turns, working together? Were they never told that if you're mean to someone, or you hurt someone, you're going to be punished and maybe have to be removed from the area?
I am the mother of two boys, who will be men in an eye-blink. I don’t ever want them to be the occasion of some woman’s “me too.” They need to learn that we don’t need more women on pedestals; we need men who know they have to share the playground.