How Far We Haven’t Come: Jessica Leeds, Anita Hill and Me

Trump supporters claim that Jessica Leeds, who recently came forward to say the presidential candidate assaulted her on a plane in the 1980s, is lying now because she didn’t come forward then. But I have a fairly good idea why she didn’t.

Devon Buchanan / Creative Commons
Devon Buchanan / Creative Commons

35 years ago, in 1981, I was a divorced mother of two struggling with a small business. I made an appointment to meet with a traveling Small Business Administration representative about available loan programs. When I asked for an application, he rifled through his briefcase, then said, “I must have left that particular application in my motel room. Why don’t you meet me there at 5 o’clock to fill it out?” It was clear what he had in mind.

I never reported him.

I tell this story because, like Anita Hill who spoke out about Clarence Thomas in that same year of 1981, and like Jessica Leeds and the women coming forward now about what Donald Trump did to them over the years, I also did nothing about it at the time. Who’d have believed me, over a man who’d been with SBA for years? There was little redress for those humiliating experiences for women. What would I do now, 35 years later, if this man were to run for president? Would I have the courage to speak out, after watching the humiliating treatment women who speak out on sexual harassment and assault still receive today?

Let me try to make it easier for men to understand the social conditioning on females to keep their mouths shut.

Imagine growing up as a male in a world where just about everyone who has power is overwhelmingly female: the president, Congress, governors, police, legislators, lawyers, judges, school administrators, clergy.

As a boy you are taught in church that God is female, that only females who are like God can be clergy and that only girls are worthy enough to serve at the altar. You learn in school that the only accomplishments that merit attention are women’s, as history books rarely mention men. You subtly begin to absorb the knowledge that males must not be worth as much as females.

In school, your female counselors steer you into the secondary positions: the dental hygienist, but not the dentist. Men earn 77 cents for every dollar women earn and rarely make it to the top, as the “glass ceiling” is firmly in place. Men—no matter how old or what their job—are still called “boys.”

In the work force, you are paid less than female colleagues with the same experience. You then start your own business—and are humiliated when you have to get your wife’s permission for a bank loan. You get divorced; the awarded child support is not enforced and you struggle to make ends meet. Government officials blatantly ask for sex in exchange for help.

At home, you know you have no legal protection. You whisper with male friends about hus- bands who are being beaten, many by wives who are pillars of the community—but police won’t interfere in “domestic disputes.” You watch men who press rape charges get dragged through the mud.

Not a pretty picture, it it? Yet all of the above happened to me and many women of Anita Hill’s and Jessica Leeds’ generation, and many of these things are still happening to women today. Study after study shows that girls today still have low self-esteem compared with boys. Society continues to teach little girls the same things about their lack of value and power that my generation was taught and women in the workplace still face discrimination in pay, promotion and sexual harassment.

No, baby, we have not come a long way.

These are not things that happen to men, which is why they cannot imagine the intimidating, fearful effect of society’s long-term conditioning on women when they are treated like second- class citizens with little legal redress. I remember in humiliation the “good” men over the years who told obscene jokes, described pornography, demanded sexual favors and didn’t think as “just warm-blooded males” they were doing anything wrong. Just “lighten up,” we were told as our breasts were grabbed. “Hey, he was just copping a feel!” No big deal.

Why should Ms. Leeds have battled the system 35 years ago? Or Anita Hill? The crucifying Anita suffered in 1991—being painted as “psychotic,” “fantasizing” and “unstable”—by the all-male Judiciary Committee was exactly what she would have faced if she had spoken out in 1981. The good old boys protected their own with a smear campaign of sound-bite character assassination worthy of the defense in any rape trial, which is what prevents many women from coming forward—including me.

That same smear is happening to the brave women who are coming out of the shadows now about Trump.

 

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.

About

Lorelei Kraft is an unusual entrepreneur and political activist. She has written numerous editorials on politics and women’s rights and several best-selling books on both business and women. She's been honored in the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame and with a National Association of Women Business Owners Vision Award, among other accolades.