Me Too: Why #metoo matters

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

When I first saw "Me too" and the #metoo hashtag appearing on Facebook and Twitter, I had mixed feelings. I was sad to see how many women I know  have experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse in their lives. Too many of us, but then, even one would be too many. 

I was proud of us for being willing to speak out and speak up. And proud of so many men speaking up in support too. 

I wondered if it would do any good. Because it feels like we're going backwards as a society and culture.  

The more I saw though, the more I thought, this is right. We have to be willing to talk before anything will change. We have to admit what we have tried to ignore or suppress because we are ashamed or embarrassed or threatened or we think it's all in the past, so why bother... 

We have to bring sexual harassment and abuse into the open before it matters. And that's what both the hastag, and the original Me Too movement begun by Tarana Burke, are about. Empowerment.

For Burke, a strong and saavy African-American activist, who began the original Me Too movement in 2006 as a way to help survivors of sexual abuse from marginalized communities, "Me Too" is not just about speaking up and gaining empathy from others. It's about what comes next: the effort needed to heal, to bring opportunity to those who feel rejected, broken. That will take more than a hashtag. There is real work to be done. 

So yes, Me too. I've been sexually harassed many times in my life. I've been sexually abused too, by a man who believed he had the legal right, even when I said, "No." And fought. And said "No" again and again. He won, but he lost me. I left him. And more recently by another man who was a good friend of my late husband and tried to take advantage of the grieving widow he assured himself who needed his "comfort." 

The most enduring episodes, I've recently realized, came when I was a young field scientist working for the US Forest Service. The subtle harassment like making sure I knew I was just a token, hired only because I was a "girl" and the Forest Service had a quota of "girls" to fill so they would meet "diversity targets." (When a young middle-class white woman is hired to add "diversity," it's a pretty sad situation.)

Me as a Forest Service plant ecologist, out in the field, in about 1981. 

The less-than-subtle stuff like one of my colleagues letting me know during a long drive in a Forest Service pickup where it was just the two of us, he at the wheel, of course, on the way to a conference that he could show me "some good times." "And mentor you on your way up in the ranks." (He was married, with several kids, and I was still a seasonal employee, working toward a permanent job.) I rode back with a different colleague.

The time another colleague, also male, because all of my fieldwork colleagues were male then, took me aside for some career advice, which included "blending in more in terms of your looks" and "not socializing with 'the girls'," the highly trained Personnel and Purchasing officers for the Forest, plus the rest of the office staff. 

I did get my permanent job without the help of my married-with-children colleague, and I didn't quit socializing with "the girls." But I did blend in. I wore my waist length red hair up in a bun, or hid it under a ball-cap, as in the photo above. I wore baggy jeans and chamois shirts in winter, long-sleeved tee-shirts and baggy chinos in summer. I deliberately downplayed my femininity, which wasn't all that hard for skinny, freckled me.

And when I got divorced from my first husband, also a colleague, and the Forest Supervisor, a very nice man, but not exactly enlightened, told me that he was sorry, but he couldn't keep both of us. "You'll marry again," he said, his face kind, "and your husband will support you. But [my ex] has to support himself." 

I was speechless for a moment (something that will surprise anyone who knows me well). And then I resigned. It was the early 1980s, and I didn't know what sexual harassment was. I also knew I was broke from the divorce and had no power. 

In the end, I didn't just leave the Forest Service, I left science, too. I went back to graduate school, turned to writing as a way to heal the world, and fell in love. I married, raised a step-daughter, moved around the country with her daddy's career. Wrote 12 published books, hundreds of newspaper columns and magazine articles. Wrote and narrated a popular nature commentary on public radio in the Southwest. Won awards. Settled in southern Colorado with my love and weathered his journey through brain cancer and my mother's death the same year. 

With Molly and Richard Cabe, the focus of my life for many years, in Boulder, Colorado in about 1988 when I was writing my first book, Pieces of Light

What the #metoo hashtag showed me is not just that I'm not alone. I see now that those experiences so long ago shaped me in ways I didn't realize. Only now as a widow, "Woman Alone," as I prefer to put it, do I recognize that I used my marriage as my shield against the world. Yes, I wrote; yes, I spoke about issues that concerned me; yes, I reached readers and listeners, changed hearts and minds. 

I also hid when I chose, taking shelter behind the larger, more gregarious figure of my husband, Richard, who was a muscled 6-foot-tall and 180 pounds. We went everywhere hand in hand, so it was easy to slip into the background of his larger personality. 

It's not that I can't take care of myself alone. I may not be tall or large, but I have muscles and I am proud of them. In the course of finishing, building, and restoring three houses since he died, I have learned to use tools and design knowledge, to work with construction guys and trades-folk of all sorts. I run 3.5 miles twice a week. I work alone digging weeds in Yellowstone, my ears cocked for grizzly bears or simply amorous elk. 

Yet somehow I internalized the lesson of that long-ago sexual harassment: I was only hired to fill a quota. Because I was a "girl." That my work has no worth. I have struggled to earn a living from my writing and speaking since Richard died. 

Because, I see now, I don't speak up for myself. I take what I'm offered, which is all-too-often close to nothing. I don't believe I am worth more. 

So yes. Me too. And it is still affecting me. I can see the ways it is holding me back more clearly now. I can work on that. 

It seems to me that's what we need to do to carry #metoo onward. It's good to speak up--if we can. It's good to empathize. It's good to see that we're not alone. 

Now each us needs to find a way to take that onward. Work with an organization that helps survivors, that empowers women (and men and others who define their gender differently). Work on your own healing. Speak up and out, and help those who aren't empowered or able to speak. 

Because #metoo is really about all of us. Empowering and healing each other, and this troubled world.