Editor’s Note: Catherine Mayer is the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party in the UK. She is the author of three books, including the recently published “Attack of the Fifty Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World!” Based in London, Catherine has spent more than three decades as a journalist. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
A week after the New York Times published the first piece about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged history of sexual aggression, I saw this tweet: “Every woman I know has had her own Weinstein incident”.
“Every single one,” I replied.
As a journalist covering male-dominated fields, I came to regard harassment by colleagues and interviewees as a routine occupational hazard, as familiar and inevitable as eye strain from long hours at the computer.
I learned in my first job at The Economist to ignore the more minor incidents, to force a smile. I was already, as a woman and an American without Oxbridge – Oxford or Cambridge – pedigree, an outsider. I had no desire to add fragility or humorlessness to this list, two qualities routinely ascribed to women (yet far more bountiful in the wattled older men whose attentions I declined).
It seemed wiser to keep quiet, even when one of my first editors at The Economist, who was married and much older, concealed a letter in my bag, declaring, in a revelation guaranteed to puncture what little confidence I’d acquired, that he had hired me only because he fancied me.
Later and for many years it seemed wiser to maintain that silence when men in positions of power or influence lunged or propositioned. I was rising in my profession. I told myself what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; that I was blazing a trail for other women. And I had glimpsed what might happen if I allowed myself to be sexualized within my professional life.
In July 2003, at his monthly Downing Street press conference, then Prime Minister Tony Blair briefly lost concentration, pointing to another journalist when I already held the microphone. The mood had been sombre; this was just two weeks after the death of scientist David Kelly during the row over the government’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
“Do you want me now?” I asked. It was a clumsy phrase and Blair seized the opportunity to lighten the mood. “Catherine, I want you anytime. Come on,” he replied, suddenly more priapic than Prime Ministerial. “That’s quite something,” I replied, and the room erupted.
The sketch writers had a field day. The tabloids foamed and frothed. “Look out, Cherie,” advised The Daily Express. Others implied the joke was on Blair with headlines such as “Tony Turns Lounge Lizard” and “Frisky Blair Love-Bombs Press with the Launch of his Secret Stud Missile”.
Yet in the longer aftermath, it became clear which of us had to live with the consequences – and it wasn’t Blair.
‘The clip still resurfaces’
Fellow Lobby journalists, mostly men and from the privately educated, Oxbridge background that had been the dominant note at The Economist, made reference to the incident long afterwards, in ways that, intentionally or not, belittled. The clip still resurfaces, in an episode of a series called “TV’s Naughtiest Blunders”.
This was at worst humiliating. It was not traumatic. I have been assaulted in the course of my work but these attacks – more than one – do not compare in seriousness to some of the terrible things other women have endured. So when a writer I respect replied to my tweet about all of us having own Weinstein incident by saying that she had not and that she feared that those of us now speaking out risked trivializing the experiences of the real victims, I gave deep consideration to her viewpoint.
It certainly has more validity than the money-for-old-tropes editorializing of female commentators paid to accuse other women of conducting “witch hunts” or the men rushing to characterize their sexual incontinence as boisterous fun.
I was surprised to find any woman who had not experienced harassment or assault, and that writer remains the only respondent to my tweet to have escaped both.
The statistics do suggest that some women avoid the latter, although sexual assault is, of course, under-reported. The World Health Organization estimates that globally one in three women will experience some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their partner in their lifetime.
In the end, I rejected the writer’s criticism. I do not think that by discussing my experiences I diminish or deny the suffering of others. On the contrary, it seems to me more vital than ever that we find a way of talking about Weinstein and the wave of testimony his case has unleashed as a symptom of endemic misogyny and violence against women and girls, a continuum of behavior from wandering hands through to rape and murder, and the expression of a culture that serves women – and men – badly.
The Women’s Equality Party, which I co-founded in 2015, builds policies around seven core objectives including the equal representation of women in politics and across all areas of endeavor and the equal treatment of women by and in the media.
Our legislatures are poorer because they exclude so many talents and perspectives. The media sidelines, stereotypes and undervalues women in all our diversity, in its output and in its structures. Yet economies and societies only thrive when women thrive.
‘In playing the system, I let it play me’
Recent events have also made me reassess my past silence. It may have helped my career but this was not trail-blazing. In playing the system, I let it play me.
Some people seem shocked by the volume of the stories now pouring out of women. They shouldn’t be.
Those memories we tamped down, those emotions we repressed, are finding an outlet. We cannot stop speaking and when we speak out, others are moved to do so too.
Earlier this year, I lodged a complaint against my most recent employer, TIME magazine – for sex and age discrimination, not harassment. As I always assumed, breaking my silence did damage my reputation – Time Inc. issued a statement: “The allegations are untrue and wholly without merit.”
Yet within days there were other responses, from people I knew and from those I had never met, who recognized in my experience clear echoes of their own. My lawsuit continues, but the mere fact of it has already had some welcome consequences and other lawsuits may be pending.
Speaking out helps, but is at best the beginning of a process of change. Companies and institutions can do better – much better – at ensuring that women are protected and supported. It will take a more profound transformation, substantial progress towards gender equality, to dismantle the underlying causes. It couldn’t be more urgent that we do so.