Did I lead him on by the clothes I was wearing? Was I flirting or asking for his advances in some way? I keep reading stories from people that suggest that somehow women who find themselves in certain positions are the ones to blame. Here is my story.
I was 16, and working at a local fast food place. I had never heard the term sexual harassment. This wasn’t something society talked about. In fact, it would be a decade before the term became mainstream.
I had been working for about 5 months. There were several managers, and I worked with all of them, but all of a sudden I was always on the schedule with one particular manager. At first I didn’t think anything of it.
And then one day he told me he needed me to go with him across town to another store to get hamburger buns. We were running low. He was my boss, and you did what your boss asked you to do. He told me to drive. I only had my permit, and he was allowing me to drive. I needed all the practice I could get. A part of me was excited to drive across town. So I drove. He told me where and when to turn. We weren’t going in the right direction. He made some excuse about deciding I probably shouldn’t drive on the main roads. And then he told me to pull into a school parking lot which was behind the school. It was a Saturday, and the lot was empty. You couldn’t see the road from the lot. He told me that I probably shouldn’t drive after all. He would take over. “Just pull around and park and we’ll switch places.”
Except when we changed places, he didn’t start to drive again. He sat there and talked. I don’t remember the conversation, but I was uncomfortable. I was young and naive, and in retrospect, I wonder exactly what his plan was. And then somebody pulled into the parking lot. He started the car and drove away. We picked up the buns and returned to the store. It took me years to realize that his plan was probably sinister.
About a week later, he told me to go in the back and open a big can using the giant can opener. I was emptying the contents into the stainless steel dish with a big spatula. I had the giant can in one hand and the spatula in the other. He walked behind me and called my name. I turned with the can in one hand and the spatula in the other hand. And he kissed me.
I didn’t kiss him back. He was 7 years older than me, and I had a boyfriend. My manager knew that, but I still blamed myself. Maybe I flirted. Maybe I gave him the impression that I was interested. He was my boss. Now I found myself afraid of him and afraid to go to work. I only told one person. For 30 years, there was one person who knew this story.
I went to the scheduling manager. I just said that I would prefer not working with that manager. Could I not be put on the schedule when he was the only manager in the store? I was told that was fine. I was also told that nothing would be said about this. There were no questions about why I was asking for this accommodation.
The next week, I called to find out when I was working next and was told that I was not on the schedule because I had been suspended. “Your cash register was short. This is the second time it was short.” The first time I should have been given a written warning. I asked when the first time was. Where was my written warning? I was told they “forgot” to give me a written letter, but they had verbally “told me about it.”
I was 16 and naive, but I wasn’t completely stupid. I knew that I was being punished for failing to go with the flow. I knew I needed to get out of the situation. I never thought about speaking out. I knew it would be my word against his. And I never thought that there might be others that would fall prey to this.
When I was put back on the schedule a week later, I was scheduled with him. I knew that it wouldn’t end. He would just keep pursuing. As long as he was my boss, he would keep putting me in situations where he could corner me, make passes at me, and. . .
The only power I thought I had was to leave. And I quit.
Was it my clothing?
Was it something I said or did?
Could I have done something to prevent his advances? Why didn’t I yell when he kissed me?
I know it wasn’t my clothes. It was the standard issue uniform. The company measured me, issued me a uniform, and it was the same uniform that every employee wore.
I know it wasn’t what I did or said. I came into work. Worked hard the entire time I was there. I was told repeatedly that I was given the busy shifts because I was great at my job. The customers gave me glowing compliments. I didn’t stand around and chat with the managers or other employees.
I know it wasn’t my fault, but 37 years later I still won’t name him. He was considered an upstanding person. Every now and then I see someone on social media say something positive about him, and I cringe. Why have I stayed silent for all these years? Why haven’t I spoken out until now?
It was 1980. Nobody talked about these things. I am not sure I would have even known who to tell. Today I would like to say I would have handled it differently. But I am well aware that it would still be my word against his. I am still aware of the fact that when women speak out, we are not believed.
I am speaking now because I have a daughter. I have nieces. I have granddaughters. I want those younger than me to understand that if you find yourself in this position, it isn’t what you wear. It isn’t what you say. And it is not something you do. It isn’t you at all.
And no matter how you handle it, I will not tell you what you should have done because you did the best you could. And when you need to talk to someone I will listen, and I will believe you.