ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Years ago, women fought for – and lost – the right to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress in 1972 but fell three states short of the number needed for ratification by the 1982 deadline.
That the ERA failed to become part of the U.S. Constitution was all the more shocking to many because it came at a time when women were enjoying hard-earned liberation in the culture-shaking aftermath of Roe v. Wade and Title IX and Ms. magazine.
Even more shocking was that the ERA’s greatest foe was a woman.
Phyllis Schlafly, an outspoken conservative anti-feminist activist, warned that women stood to lose much more than they would gain under the ERA. She argued that equality would lead to same-sex marriage, coed bathrooms, and, worst of all, forced military service.
You could not, she said, “have a system whereby the women would get all the nice, easy desk jobs and the men get all the fighting jobs.”
As a young woman in the ’70s, I wondered why that would be a bad thing. Surely women, some of them anyway, wanted to serve their country on the front lines.
Now, years later, we know that they do and they are.
Schlafly, though, had made a good point, though one she likely hadn’t intended. Equality did have consequences. It took work. Liberation came with responsibility.
I’ve been thinking of this again in light of the #metoo and #timesup movements and the debate that has arisen over whether what happened to an anonymous fledgling photographer on a date with comedian Aziz Ansari was sexual harassment or sexual assault or just plain old bad sex.
The story, which appeared a week ago in a Rupert Murdoch-funded online venture called, of all things, Babe, detailed the “worst night” in the life of a 22-year-old woman who despite her nonverbal cues of moving away and “acting cold” and her meek “whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill” suggestion, Ansari, 34, continued to attempt rather awkwardly to seduce her, all while both were in various stages of undress.
Finally, after what she called several gross and forceful kisses, she left in the Uber he had called for her. She was tearful and shaken, she said. And when Ansari texted her the next day to tell her it was fun meeting her, she was no longer meek.
Ansari apologized. In a statement released after the article was published, Ansari said that he had believed the sexual activity between them was consensual and that he was surprised and concerned to learn he had been wrong.
I’ve covered sexual assault and harassment of women for years, and I have been proud of the brave women who have come forward to tell their stories, proud of the female journalists who have told those stories with compassion and clarity and extreme due diligence.
But something about the woman’s story did not sit right with me, and perhaps part of that had to do with the inexperience of the story’s author, Katie Way, for a media outlet that prides itself on being uncensored, unfiltered, spontaneous and savage for “girls who don’t give a (expletive).”
Way has also come under criticism after penning a snarky retort about the hair and age of a veteran journalist who had raised concerns about Way’s story.
But it was also a story that I and most women can relate to. Because we’ve all had that date. We all know that guy, awkward and oblivious and certain that with persistence and just the right move, the right amount of wine, the right wrong, we will give in and eventually fall for his questionable charms and into his bed.
That, it seemed, was what had happened here. The woman had apparently always been free to leave. She was not threatened, barricaded, restrained. He was not her boss or someone who could destroy her career. Framing an awkward sexual encounter as sexual assault seemed reckless and suggested that only the man in the scenario had the power, that the woman bore no responsibility for what had transpired.
Many women felt as I did about her story, but many did not. We were victim-blaming, they said. We were not considering that women are socialized to be “people pleasers,” they said. And shame on us for suggesting it was this young woman’s responsibility to make her “no” clear enough to be understood by a man who either didn’t grasp her ineffective cues or didn’t care to.
Have we really come no farther since before the 1970s?
Despite our disagreements, the conversation has been a good and necessary one. So let me add a few things more to the conversation, given without blame or shame or Schlafly scorn: If we want to be heard, we must learn how to speak up, not with cues or meek suggestions but clear voices.
If we want those who have exploited us, assaulted us, harassed us, made us uncomfortable, made us do what we did not want to do to take responsibility for their actions, then we must take responsibility for ours, too.
Equality requires work. We know this. Let’s fight for it and for ourselves.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.