When The Washington Star folded in 1981, it was hard for me to find another job. I got a little desperate.
Finally I was offered a fine job at a magazine. One of its editors made the offer over dinner at a Washington hotel where he was staying. At the end of dinner, as I got ready to leave, this nice, attractive and happily married editor looked at me and said: “Stay.”
The room reeled. I stammered something about meeting my boyfriend to celebrate my new job.
“Call him,” the editor instructed, pushing a quarter across the table.
Feeling dizzy, I explained that I couldn’t reach him, thanked the editor and rushed out of the hotel. When I got out on the street, I screamed. I was furious. I didn’t know if I still had the job or what the job really entailed. I had come to him out of need, and he responded with an altogether different need of his own.
I wanted to throw the job back in his face, but I knew I would not get another one that good. After agonizing all weekend, I showed up on Monday. The editor was professional and encouraging. He later apologized.
When Anita Hill and now Kathleen Willey came forward to tell their stories about sexual harassment, their critics yelped that these women were clearly lying, since they never would have stayed on pleasant terms with men who had acted so crudely. How could they have continued to work with, call, write nice notes to or ask favors of Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton?
Easy. Just ask most working women.
Ann Lewis, whose skirt Clinton is hiding behind, doesn’t get it anymore. In 1991 she fought conservatives who said Anita Hill’s credibility was shot because she had followed Thomas from job to job, and continued calling him.
Lewis lectured Pat Buchanan about the mind-set of working girls: “… (You) have this really prestigious and powerful boss, and think you have to stay on the right side of him or for the rest of your working life he could nix another job.”
Now Lewis, in her role as White House rationalizer, has attacked Ms. Willey’s credibility by saying that in ‘96, three years after the groping incident in the Oval Office, the former White House volunteer said she admired Clinton and wanted to raise funds for his campaign.
“It is such a contradiction,” Lewis says. No, it’s not. Bosses often inspire feelings of admiration and disgust, depending on the moment.
Women cannot always stand on principle when the men with power over them stumble across the line. Women usually behave in more layered and self-interested ways. These painful nuances of emotion and calculation cannot be captured by the blacks and whites of sexual harassment law - which can make women look hypocritical and manipulative.
But women are accustomed to putting up with immature and wormy behavior by men in their personal lives - and in their professional lives. Women have learned, through long years of being subordinated to men in the workplace, to use their wiles and wits to maneuver past eruptions of male libido.
Skeptics wonder why neither Hill nor Willey filed complaints against their tormentors. But if women took action every time a boss made an unwanted pass or an untoward remark, they would be twice injured: first when they are treated like chattel and again when they lose their bridge to a good job, a good recommendation and a good contact.
The dirty little secret of gender politics is that women are not fools; in learning to sidestep the importunings of men, they have also learned to turn them to their advantage.
Anita Hill and Kathleen Willey were prepared to extract the good from the bad and make their bosses’ libidos work for them. It’s a way of getting ahead in a world dominated by powerful men.
But self-interest, too, has its limits. A woman who is willing to be teased may not be prepared to be degraded. She may tolerate a boss’s gaze but not a boss’s hands. She may tolerate one crack about a Coke can but not a daily soliloquy on porno flicks.
For women, there is a steadily growing cost in personal dignity for playing the gender game at the office.
So bosses beware. Some prices are too much to pay. When the line is crossed, some women may not only collapse into tears. They may also collapse into television.