Having worked my entire adult life, I’ve been one of the many women who encountered sexual harassment on the job. While working as a legal secretary in the South during the 1980’s, I met more than my share of unusual and interesting people. In one of the more difficult experiences, a client of the law firm where I was employed began a campaign to get my attention. He telephone constantly and asked the switchboard operator for my boss, sometimes over twenty times a day, knowing I would answer the phone. Many times, he said nothing and simply breathed heavily when I answered. Other times he would randomly ask what I was wearing and made inappropriate suggestions. One of the most embarrassing moments during one of his visits to our office included his announcement to me and two other people in our office that he wanted to have “hot, raw sex with me.” I was mortified.
At the time, I was a single mother with two young children and struggling with a very demanding job that I desperately needed. I mentioned to my boss how uncomfortable this situation was becoming and I was told to just ignore it. He was a very important client. It was impossible to focus and work efficiently with the barrage of phone calls.
There were other problems with this job. I was a novice to the legal field working for a partner who needed more experienced support, so I wasn’t the best fit. Ultimately, as the embarrassment of dealing with this unpleasant, ridiculous client continued to be more difficult, I went to the office manager and delivered an ultimatum: either the client had to be pulled in line or I would have to leave. The next morning I was given a check for three weeks’ pay and escorted out to the elevator.
Fortunately, I survived and quickly found another job but it was very traumatic and disappointing to realize no one had come to my defense. I could have filed suit, but I needed a job. The local business community would have ostracized me and I could not afford for that to happen. I did nothing about it and put it behind me, but I’ve always regretted the decision to be silent.
So when America starts to critique and disrupt the lives of Herman Cain’s sexual harassment accusers, we should all remember that the laws intended to protect people from sexual harassment are there for a reason. I know women who have taken advantage of employers who would rather settle a claim than investigate it thoroughly, but the vast majority of sexual harassment claims are filed by people who simply want to be allowed to do their job in an atmosphere of respect. Everyone deserves at least that.
Today I watched a clip of Mike Huckabee making jokes about being sexually harassed in Popeye’s Chicken when a woman at the counter called him “honey”. He thought it was cute. Clearly, Mike has never had to endure unwanted sexual attention at work, or had to worry about being felt up by someone with the power to fire him. He wouldn’t think it was very funny. I’ve even heard a female commentator on Fox News speculating that Herman Cain’s accuser was much less credible because she waited all this time to come forward, and she would have been more credible had she told everyone about it at the time and charged him with assault. Maybe that commentator should give me a call. I’d like to help her rethink that point.