By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
I’ve been obsessed with the fall of Harvey Weinstein these past few weeks. I was about five feet away from Mr. Weinstein up in Sun Valley a few years ago. He is just as hairy and creepy looking in person as his pictures indicate and I can’t imagine the horror of being in his radar. As a former HR executive for a major corporation, and two small companies before that, I’ve seen and heard more than most in terms of sexual harassment. The only thing Mr. Weinstein got right is that harassment in the workplace was common in the 70’s and 80’s. For those of us who began our careers in that era we know that leering glances, off-color remarks and outright propositions happened all the time. A successful career not only required skill in the selected profession but also being able to fend off the inevitable advances. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, our greatest skill was being able to tell the perpetrator to go to hell in such a way that he’d enjoy the trip. We never reported such events. Frankly, I don’t think anyone would have cared back then. I once had the head of HR asked me to “walk on the beach” with him after an offsite dinner. I think his definition of walking on the beach didn’t include much walking. He got increasingly angry with each rebuff. He finally gave up but from that point on his formerly praising attitude toward my work turned to one of criticism. I reported the incident to the head of personnel relations, but she felt her hands were tied. After all, going over his head to the President of the company seemed like a far reach in the 1980’s. I left the company shortly after that.
So I’ve read with interest the remarks some have made castigating the women Mr. Weinstein harassed for not stepping up right after he groped, raped or pleaded with them to watch him shower. I have an issue with Ashley Judd (more on that later) but I think she got it right when asked to reflect on how she responded in 1996 to Weinstein’s first proposition to her. She said she would tell her younger self, “Good for you! Good for getting yourself out of that situation without any harm being done.” Sometimes that’s enough – just getting yourself out of harm’s way. The people who criticize the scores of women Weinstein harassed do not understand how frightening and paralyzing it is to be in that situation.
All that said, I do have a problem with the number of very powerful women who have kept Mr. Weinstein’s sexual predilections quiet for so many years. After all, it is widely reported that his methods for intimidating young women were known for decades. So well known that a clause was written into his contract citing increasing monetary penalties for each lawsuit brought due to his misconduct. I understand young, wanna be actresses not wanting to speak up about the most powerful producer in Hollywood. But where were the women who were already famous and successful? Why didn’t they speak up, either individually or collectively, to protect those who couldn’t? Are we really supposed to believe that Meryl Streep “had no knowledge” about his harassment and Hillary Clinton was “shocked” to learn of his behavior? These women who claim to be so much in the forefront for women’s issues were silent. They found it convenient, for career or for cash, to overlook it. Which brings me back to Ashley Judd. She has been called “brave” by many who laud her for speaking out against Mr. Weinstein. I was on board with that until I saw her interview with Diane Sawyer in which she said that in 1999 she was seated at a dinner table with him and told him off. She noted, “I found my power and I found my voice.” Think of the scores of women who would have been spared his deviant behavior had she used her voice to blow the whistle on him publicly at that time.
I have seen “brave” firsthand. In the late 80’s I received a phone call from the Administrative Assistant to a senior manager in one of our major offices. She was sobbing as she told me that the evening before, as she entered her boss’ office at the end of the workday, he pinned her against the wall, kissed her and was trying to get her blouse off. She was able to escape his clutches and run from the building. The following morning she called me from home. She explained that she really needed her job – she was self-supporting and it was a very tight job market after the 1987 crash – but asked if I could call him and ask him to leave her alone. When I explained that legally I had to have the situation investigated she panicked and asked me to forget that she called. Of course, we had to proceed with an inquiry and she courageously told her story to the investigator. We fired her boss the next day.
In my opinion, “brave” is an appellation belonging to that young woman, and all the others like her, who blew the whistle in the moment. There is little bravery in waiting 20 years, once there is no longer a risk to personal or professional well being. It seems to me that the height of hypocrisy is to be lectured about standing up for women from those who sat silent for so long.