Editor’s Note: This story originally published on November 9, 2017.
In 1979, when my mother was 18, she and her best friend worked at a pizza parlor in London.
My mother appreciated her boss when she first started the job. Even at 2 a.m., he always called taxis for “the girls,” making sure they got home safely at the end of the night.
One afternoon the two friends showed up to start their shifts, but her boss stopped them before they got to their tables.
“You aren’t working tonight,” he said. “My cousin and I are taking you out.” The other waitresses watched silently as they left the restaurant.
The cousin’s car waited by the curb. As they walked out the restaurant’s front door, my mother remembers her friend grabbing her arm, whispering, “You run this way, I run that way.”
They bolted in opposite directions. When they met up several streets away, my mother couldn’t understand what had happened.
“I asked her, ‘Why did we have to run away? I don’t understand. That’s so rude. Oh my God, we’re going to get in trouble,’” she remembers. “She was like, ‘No, we were going to get in their car,’ and I was like, ‘You’re right, they could have taken us anywhere.’”
When my mom first told me her story, she remembered it as that time she and her friend got one over on the boss and his creepy cousin.
But now, my mother says she sees the facts of her story in a different light.
“I think I was kind of clueless to sexual harassment,” she says now. “I just thought, ‘Your boss tells you to do something and you do it, whether you like it or not.’”
In the wake of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein, with women everywhere sharing their own stories of harassment using the hashtag #metoo, a lot of young women are having honest – and sometimes difficult – conversations with their mothers.
Acts of workplace harassment were still common in past decades, but less often recognized as something reportable, or even illegal. But the experience sometimes looks different after years of hindsight.
My mother isn’t the only one reexamining stories from her past this way. University of Maine psychology professor Amy Blackstone, who has done research on the subject of sexual harassment, titled her work after a quote from a subject: “I didn’t recognize it was a bad experience until I was much older.”
She remembers one woman in particular, who in high school had worked as a lifeguard. She described the job as a fun summer gig, with after-work parties with coworkers. But then she remembered some of what happened during work: the groping, the inappropriate touching.
“As she was telling me this, she was like, ‘You know, that really wasn’t that fun. Now that I think about it, that really wasn’t OK,’” she says. “The facts of the incident didn’t change, but her perspective about it changed, the way she felt about it changed, as she described it.”
My mother’s story didn’t end when she ran away from the car. When she and her friend went back to work the next day, the boss called them into his office and yelled at them. He said they had embarrassed him.
My mother said her friend just stared at the floor while he shouted. I ask my mom what she did.
“I probably apologized,” she says.
When she thinks about it now, she thinks about how smart her friend was to run, and how angry she is that they would even have been asked out like that, at work.
Just a week later, my mother quit the job and moved to America. I ask her what happened when she left the restaurant. Did she file a complaint? Confront the boss? Tell other waitresses?
But she didn’t say anything.
“I felt like I was the one who was making it into a bigger deal than it probably was,” she says. “It was not something you even thought about. You did what you were told. I think back then, a lot of people felt that if someone complained about it, it was the woman overreacting.”
When my aunt later went to pick up my mother’s last paycheck, the boss said he didn’t have one. He looked around, pretending to be confused.
He never paid “the girls” for their last week of work.