Photo credit: Tamzin B. Smith Portrait Photography
We have fought this battle before. We fought, we won, and yet were unable to claim a total victory.
This is what ran through my head in 2017 when I was deciding whether to break my non-disclosure agreement with WNYC and talk publicly about the bullying and harassment I'd endured while working there. I wondered, "Are women doomed to fight the same battle over and over, generation after generation?"
As a journalist who had covered the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination for years, I already knew several facts about my situation.
- Tens of thousands of women had been in the same or similar situation
- Some had fought and won
- Some had fought and lost
- Neither the wins nor the losses had significantly changed the daily working lives of women
Before I decided what to do, I did even more research in the hopes that I could learn from what other women had gone through. As the novelist George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
One of the first stories I read was about Lisa Mays and the women who sued Wall Street. Mays was sexually assaulted while working at Smith Barney and she filed a class action suit against the firm, along with 22 other women. Almost 2,000 women ended up joining the suit, and Smith Barney paid $150 million dollars to settle the case.
One woman told the Washington Post at the time that "It's like they have a manual in their heads as to how to crush women." The case was nicknamed the "Boom-Boom-Room," after an actual room in the firm's Garden City office where male executives consumed vast amounts of alcohol, made lewd comments, and groped multiple women. Think The Wolf of Wall Street, but real life and no Leonardo DiCaprio.
The women who filed the suit were battling mandatory arbitration, a system that forced them to handle complaints within the company and generally take their sexual harassment and assault accusations to white, male arbitrators. One broker allegedly told his female employee that charges of sexual harassment would be dealt with in the Boom-Boom-Room.
Those brave women won their case and helped establish legal precedent for claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. And yet, here we are decades later and 55% of workers who report harassment are still subject to mandatory arbitration. That's more than double the number in the early 2000s. Despite the court victory in the 1990s, one Wall Street lawyer told the New York Times that about 90% of her clients are blocked from legal relief because of binding arbitration agreements. Furthermore, employers have found other ways to silence their workers, like the non-disclosure agreement that I signed when I took the job at WNYC. I chose to speak up in 2017, breaking the NDA that I signed and risking legal action.
One of the great benefits of hosting the show "Retro Report" on PBS is that our mission is to bring greater understanding of today's events by tracing them back to their roots in history. We talked about the #MeToo movement, for example, by telling the story of Lisa Mays and the other women who sued Smith Barney.
Knowing our history, as George Santayana implied, can give us context and insight to better inform our current experience. Even recent history can help. While mulling over my options in 2017, I called the other women who had preceded me in my position to hear what they'd endured and how they'd handled it.
Despite the lessons of both recent and distant history, I was faced with a decision between remaining silent and safe or speaking up to protect the future but risking retaliation. I may have learned from the past but my employers had not. Or, perhaps we had both just learned very different lessons.
A number of the women who were part of the Boom-Boom-Room suit now say that change has been incremental or non-existent in financial firms. If anything, they say, legal victories have simply made the harassment and discrimination more subtle than in was during the heyday of 1990s bro culture.
To quote another famous philosopher, Georg Hegel once said "We learn from history that we do not learn from history." Time and again, we see that mistakes of the past are made by ensuing generations in a never-ending cycle of bad choices with little retribution.
If we are to truly learn from history, it can only be done by examining our past with a clear and honest eye, not seeking to excuse or justify anyone but, instead, to avoid the errors of our elders. I've learned to never sign away my right to justice. I hope other women will learn the same lesson from my experience and the experience of all the women who have come before me. We have fought this battle before. It's time to claim true victory: an end to the contract clauses that seek to silence us.
"There are no good men out there," yet another woman my age declared. At 50, I was freshly divorced after two decades of marriage and motherhood. My unhappy marriage had shattered my faith in men and romantic relationships. Based on my ex-husband's opinion of my sexual appeal, I was afraid my naked body would cause future lovers to run screaming from the room. Rather gleefully, I announced to my girlfriends that I was done with men, and sex, forever.
For the first year, I got tangled in my sheets alone every night, overjoyed to have the bed and my body to myself. I felt liberated by divorce—free to be me, skip showering, and make dinner for one. But it bothered me when women decried the scarcity of men, because I'd known so many good ones—college boyfriends, my brother, my best friend from business school, etc. The first of many naked truths gradually crept up on me: I was not going to find my juju again through self-help and yoga. The feminist in me didn't want to admit it, but going for too long without men was akin to starvation.
I didn't want another husband. But I needed men, a lot of them.
The universe signaled its approval by sending Mr. Blue Eyes to me at an airport. He was 29 and perhaps the sexiest man I'd ever kissed. Being with him convinced me, pretty decisively, that men were going to heal me, even though men had destroyed me many times before. I became the female incarnation of a divorced, clichéd older man: I bought a sports car, revamped my wardrobe, and took younger lovers. "I want five boyfriends," I told my best friend KC after that first tryst ended. "Sweet, cute, smart, nice. Enough that I won't get too attached to one." My message from the frontlines of divorce at 50 is that to restore your confidence as a woman, especially in the wake of a crushing breakup, try dating outside your comfort zone, expanding your dating pool to include partners you might never have considered before. It may not be the recipe for a lasting union, but in terms of rebuilding your self-esteem, it can work wonders.
The first thing I noticed—and liked—about dating younger men is that they didn't want to marry me or make babies with me. And I didn't want that either. Frankly, I didn't even want them to spend the night. Since I'd been 11, I'd been taught to seek out and value men who wanted commitment. To my surprise, I found it refreshing, even more authentic, to be valued not for my potential as a mate, but instead for my body, intelligence, life-experience and sexuality.
And the sex! I quickly realized that—warning, blanket stereotype coming—men under 40 are more straightforward and adventurous than older men, maybe since they were raised with the Internet. You hear so often about the scourge of crude, sexist online pornography; and I agree that the depersonalization of women as sexual playthings is deeply destructive to all genders. However, from sexting to foreplay, I found younger men uniquely enthusiastic about getting naked and enjoying sex. Every younger man found my most erotic zones faster than any man my age ever had, with a lack of hesitation men over 50 seemed unable to fathom.
Also, about my big fear of getting naked in front of a younger man? Completely unfounded. I started to shake when Airport Boy took off my sundress in our hotel room. Had he ever seen a woman my age nude? How could I stand to be skin-to-skin with a body far more perfect than mine? I had given birth to eight-pound, full-fucking-term babies. I'd nursed them, too, and at times by breasts looked (from my view at least) like wet paper towels. "You have a spectacular body," he told me instead, running his hand over the cellulite on my stomach that I despised. That night I learned that younger men who seek older women accept our physical flaws—they don't expect perfection in someone 20 years their senior. These men taught me to see my body through a positive, decidedly male lens, to focus on the pretty parts (and we all have them) rather than the flaws that we all have too, whether you're 19, 29 or 59.
I even found the pillow talk lighter, easier and more intellectually stimulating, because a younger man's world view differs so vastly from the pressures of my 20-something kids, annual colonoscopies, 401K balance and mortgage payments. They have simple financial problems, like "Can I borrow a few quarters for the parking meter outside?" or "Do you have any advice on consolidating my student loans?"
Everything feels simpler with younger men. Men under 40 seem less threatened by assertive women; they grew up with them. They like cheap beer instead of expensive wine. They don't snore (as much). Leftovers a 55-year-old would scoff at look good to them. Their erections NEVER last more than four hours. Their hard-ons end the old-fashioned way and 45 minutes later they are ready for more.
But what I enjoy most about younger men is not the sex, or the cliché that they make me feel young again—because they don't. Younger men make me feel old, and to my delight, I like that. I feel valuable around younger men, precisely because I am wiser and more experienced in life, love and between the sheets.
I know I'll never end up with one for good. The naked truth is we don't have enough in common to last. One recently put it exactly right when he told me, "I love this, but there's always gonna be a glass ceiling between us." That lack of permanence, the improbability of commitment and "forever," doesn't mean I can't pick up a tip or two about self-esteem, and enjoy the magic of human connection with younger men. And vice versa. The experience can enrich us both, making us better partners for people our own ages down the road.
*My viewpoint is from the perspective of a heterosexual woman, because I am one. But change the gender identification and/or sexual orientation to whatever works for you and let me know if the same advice holds true. Thank you.