Just when you think its safe to stow the umbrella and bare your ankles, it starts raining “dirty old men” from coast to coast.
From California to the New York island, this land is caught in a torrential downpour of lechers, misogynists and straight-out-of-the-sixties male chauvinists. A groping governor fathering a secret “love child” with his housekeeper and, the head of the International Monetary Fund arrested for the sexual assault of a chambermaid are just the latest wave in a long season of high-profile men leching it up.
It’s a climate that leaves spouses and children strewn across headlines, and some women wondering when feminism died, or if it had ever been born.
Had the perpetrator of my feminist angst really gone the way of cliches and padded shoulders, or had the “male chauvinist” been here all along?
I was first introduced to the “cad” on the flip side of the feminist movement. It was 1968. Phillip Morris had just rolled out “Virginia Slims”– skinny cigarettes aimed at fledgling feminists, branding their cause with its slogan, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” (Cigarettes didn’t give us higher pay, but they did give us higher lung cancer rates.)
That September, the women’s liberation movement gathered in Atlantic City to protest the Miss America Beauty Pageant. As feminists tossed their undergarments, hairspray and any other “instruments of torture” into the “Freedom Trash Can,” shouting “ALL WOMEN ARE BEAUTIFUL,” I sat in a miniskirt waiting to be interviewed for a job I was hardly qualified for. “Male chauvinist” wasn’t even in my vocabulary.
With the evolution of sexual harassment laws and mandatory workplace classes, by the mid-eighties, the “male chauvinist” was barely noticeable in the workplace. Some young women today may not know he ever existed, aside from his appearance in AMC’s Mad Men series as a handsome fictional character enveloped in a smoke-hazed nostalgia of cigarettes, martini lunches and wild affairs.
But, those of us who knew firsthand about the wage gap between men and women and experienced sexual harassment as waitresses, secretaries, college coeds, and yes, housekeepers and chambermaids are no less naive for thinking that feminism was the cure-all for male chauvinism.
In truth, the “male chauvinist” reared his ugly head long before our Maidenforms were tossed into the metaphoric bonfire. Before the late 70s, men truly ran the show — at home and in the workplace, at church and in the armed services. While the feminist movement brought the cad to the forefront, he probably never left us. He just became sneakier.
The morning of my first-ever job interview at the local car dealership, my mother could be found at the kitchen table with a handful of cash, coaching me on counting back change. This and mastering my multiplications in grade school, plus a one-day stint at the A & W was the extent of my qualifications for the position of cashier.
Fresh out of high school, I sat in the showroom with several older women who fidgeted nervously with the hems of their skirts, searched their handbags and chatted amongst themselves about their combined decades of bookkeeping. One woman was newly divorced and worried aloud about needing a paycheck to pay rent.
I was the last to interview. After three questions, the silver-haired owner announced, “You’re hired!”
Stunned at my good fortune, I choked out, “Why?”
“Because,” he winked, coming around his desk to rub my shoulders, “you’ve got great legs!”
Bewildered and wanting to run home to my mother, I was given my first task: calling my fellow applicants and telling them they didn’t get the job. One woman seemed so devastated, I nearly confided the truth to her: It wasn’t that she was unqualified. It was that the boss was a male chauvinist — a term I finally understood. One I imagined was long since gone.