There it is. That quiet moment when everything changes. The earth spins on its axis just a few degrees and it all looks different. When there is a collective “Ah-ha.” We saw it when a majority came to the conclusion that same-sex marriage would be just fine. When the injustices piled up so high and the video crimes became so acutely visible, that conversations about race long dormant took center stage. Just like that, something shifts and we see long-held discrimination in a clear light.
Is this happening now for women? Has cruel boasting about non-consensual sexual advances made the majority see what they have not seen before? Was it the moment, just days ago, when Michelle Obama brought her hand to her face, deep in thought, disturbed, and told us that it was not okay to look the other way when a woman, of any age, is subjected to unwanted sexual advances?
For me, as for so many women, we meet this moment with deeply mixed emotions. I know of no woman who has not been the victim of unwanted sexual advances. None. And at my age of 60, the incidents have piled up like a traffic jam on a Sunday evening on Interstate 95. That time a former senator came up behind me and fondled my breasts late at night in the office. My boss told me, “We like him. Don’t make it a big deal.” That time when, at age 14, I experienced cat calls from construction workers for the first time while walking down the street. Going home to my dad to ask him what to do about it—and his complete inability to answer my questions, or give me any advice at all.
My question then—and at the core of my being every moment of every day for the next 46 years is –am I valued or am I demeaned? This question remains unanswered.
We launched the Aspen Forum on Women and Girls at the White House Summit on International Women’s Day in March to tap into this deep, awakening conversation. To broaden the conversation to all—men, women, people across generations—and to dive into the deep chasm that has opened up about women’s issues. Just like that, the layers of the onion are exposed for what they are, and we are not talking anymore simply about pay equity, or reproductive rights, or single moms. We are talking about something much deeper that touches all of us: The unconscious bias and explicit discrimination that exist for women everywhere in the world. I long for that fresh moment on the other side of this discomfort when we have moved to a better place. And I know that it is there—I hear it in listening to our Aspen New Voices Fellow Elsa D’Silva, who founded the innovative mobile app Safecity in India that allows women to report public sexual harassment and which is now being replicated in cities all over the world. I know we will get on the other side of this discomfort when I listen to a panel at Aspen Ideas Festival Spotlight Health on “What Is Gender?” and hear an LGBT activist from Nigeria, Bisi Alimi, in conversation with the new President of Wellesley College, Paula Johnson, imagining a much more tolerant future.
Maybe, just maybe, men and others outside of the women’s movement will feel compelled to join us now to help answer my question. Maybe, we can finally see discrimination against women for what it really is: Dehumanizing, ignorant, cruel.
How strange that in the dramatic swirl of so many topics in this election cycle—immigration, leaked emails, trade deals–the issue of abuse of women may be the snag in the carpet that turns the debate.
I know I speak for millions of women as I write this today: these issues cut deep and to the core. I am awash with memories of being told to just go along with unwanted sexual advances, of my friends’ heartbreaking stories, of my daughter’s 2:00 am call after an assault. It is #NotOkay. Wake up, world. Let’s see this for what it is—abuse—and let’s stop it.