Thursday, March 10, 2011

20 years later, it's still an upHill battle

Last week George Mason Women and Gender Studies, along with African and African American Studies, hosted a lecture by Anita Hill to kick off Women's History Month and close out Black History Month. It was incredibly inspirational, moving, and powerful to see this woman who spoke truth to power when she shared her experience of sexual harassment during Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings before the Senate back in 1991. The state of women's rights in the workplace has changed dramatically in the past 20 years- because of the reaction to Hill's testimony, women are more vocal about harassment and companies are more vigilant to ensure they do all they can to prevent a law suit and also (we hope) because there is a growing recognition that a safe (read: not hostile) work environment is good for the bottom line.

But here's the thing: Despite all of the positive changes that have happened since Hill's testimony, I can't help but get the feeling that the overarching culture that recognizes women first and foremost as sex objects is still alive and well. This is not exactly breaking news, but I continue to be startled by the ways this culture manifests itself in my daily life. I have the tremendous privilege of working each day at the Women and Gender Studies Center, then hanging out with gender/queer conscious peeps in my free time. So each time 'reality' in the form of tacit misogyny pops up it is a shocking slap in the face.

Most recent stark case in point: After spending the day with Professor Hill in preparation for her lecture and following her speech, I was walking back to my car musing about how amazingly lucky I am to live in a time where trailblazers like Anita Hill have paved the way for me to live in a more just world. Strolling in my happy pink cloud, I was abruptly pulled back down to earth as I passed the senior student housing on the GMU Fairfax campus. Apparently something about me in my long black coat (that completely covered me head to toes) was so tantalizing that some man in the dorm just couldn't keep himself from wolf whistling at me. This certainly is not the most horrific thing that could happen to a woman, and some people might even take it as a compliment (I didn't). Regardless of the whistler's intention (did he really think I was going to stop walking and run into his arms, so turned on by his appreciation that I couldn't hold myself back?), for me, the result of his whistle was a cold reminder that no matter how far we have come in recognizing women's value, the way the world sees me above all is as a sex object to be appreciated for my ass(ests) and curves, not my brain or contributions to society. Wolf whistles, comments about 'you look sooo good' in creepy tones, and other remarks along the same vein function to keep women concerned for our physical safety, hyper aware of our surroundings, and always tuned into the fact that society grants anyone the right to comment on our physical appearance and sexual activities. How exactly am I supposed to think of myself as a credible professional when 30 seconds later some co-ed reminds me that, in his eyes, I am just legs and breasts?

Anita Hill, thank you for what you did to make it possible for me to stand up and assert my right to be seen as more than a sex object. Now, if the rest of world could join us feminists climbing up the mountain of inequality, perhaps we could reach a point where it's not too much to ask to walk down the street without commentary.

Article about Professor Hill at GMU:

More info about Professor Hill's recent adventures in misogyny land:

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