I am now ready to write my #MeToo story. I am doing this now because I feel I have something to say and maybe someone will feel empowered by my experience. I certainly hope so. (View my previous post on this topic at On the Wrong Side.
First of all I’d like to make a disclaimer here. All memories are subjective and after 40 years I am not sure of many of the details. As a result some of my facts may be off. But I do know what happened and I am not exaggerating my feelings and reaction at the time. Also I did not change the name of the man involved, but I cannot recall his last name. If I did, I would not hesitate to reveal it.
In 1977 I worked at Plastic Molding Co. on Grand Avenue in Cincinnati. I was 23 years old and had 3 small children. I liked the job and the pay was good. Each day I worked as one of the many press operators. We had to stand all day beside a large hot plastic compression mold, retrieving the hot automotive parts when the mold opened at timed intervals, inspecting, trimming and then packing the parts in large crates. We were not permitted to leave our work station unless someone came to relieve us while we took our break. Any urgent bathroom needs required flagging down one of the floating material handlers, asking him to watch your press while you rushed off to do your business. There were three levels of employees on the floor, the lowest being press operator, next up the ladder were the material handlers and last was the lead-man. The only way to make it to lead-man was to serve time as a material handler. This was a systemic form of sexual discrimination since the material handler had to be strong enough to tilt and roll 50 gallon barrels of raw plastic material and dump them into the large hoppers that fed the presses. I do not think any woman felt confident enough to try for the material handler job, so both material handlers and the lead-man were all men. Most of the press operators were women, except for one new guy who was hired when I started and an older black guy, who for this piece I will call J.
All the women I worked with were older than me. Some were in their forties and several were divorced single mothers. (There was a younger woman, about 19, who started when I did, but she quit not long after she started.) These women were great to work beside, funny, tough and brutally honest. Several of them were comfortable talking openly about sex and other off color topics. Cussing, foul language and sexual banter with the three men who worked on the floor was very common. I cannot say if any of this was consensual behavior on their part, I just know how I felt about it and what happened to me.
One of the material handlers named Gilbert began to make frequent stops at my work station to shoot the breeze. He was a short balding man with a pot belly. He smoked a lot and liked to gossip about the other women. I just listened and nodded, and laughed when appropriate. But I did not like him. Eventually Gilbert began to talk more and more about sexual topics. He’d tell me what he heard from the others, who was doing what with whom, adding his own commentary. I did not know how to stop his attention and my inaction and lack of protests, probably encouraged him. One day he started telling me that “J wanted to do it to me.” I was really upset. I knew it wasn’t true. “You’re lying” I protested. J had never ever said or done anything to make me feel uncomfortable. All the operators rotated on different presses each week and so sometimes I would be working closer to J, but since it was so noisy and we could not leave our presses I never really talked to him much.
I began to dread it when I saw Gilbert coming my way. I tried to ward him off by jokingly saying, “Oh go away,” or “You’re full of s—t.” What I did not have were the words or the channel necessary to put a stop to his harassment. I wasn’t a prude by a long shot. I grew up in Dayton Kentucky with a lot of poor and rough characters. I always felt that I could take care of myself. When I was in the eighth grade a man in our neighborhood who rehabbed houses, his name was Ernie Bay (sp?), came onto me when I was alone with him in a garage and I took off running. Later I told my sisters and my friends and we started calling him Ernie the perv. But that is another #MeToo story for another time.
But I was at a loss on how to get rid of Gilbert when he showed up to bother me each day. No one talked about sexual harassment or discrimination back then. There was no procedure in place to report sexual discrimination or harassment in the work place. So I felt I had no way out. I could quit my job or grit my teeth and put up with Gilbert. Now that I think about it, the girl who started when I did may have quit because of Gilbert’s unwanted attention. I do not recall, but it may be that Gilbert did not start bothering me until after she left.
The whole thing came to a head one day when Gilbert came up to my workstation as usual, but this time as I turned my back to retrieve the heavy black plastic brake cylinder out of the press, he spread out a color pornographic photo on my table. I turned to do my work and was horrified by what I saw. I did not study the details of the photo, but I knew there was at least one white woman and more than one black man, all naked and invading my space. Before I could register what was happening, Gilbert laughed and said, “Here’s what J wants to do to you.” At that instant my head exploded. I grabbed the photo, crumpled it and threw it at Gilbert. I went into a rage and began screaming at him. I cannot recall my exact words, but I do know I used every cuss word and filthy insult I had ever heard. I threatened to kill Gilbert multiple times. “You m@#$%& f&&%^$# c&*^%$# s^%$@!)(* son of a bitch,. You better get the F*&^%$ away from me you low life scum bag. If you ever come near me again I will kill you. I swear to F*&^%$# God, I will kill you.”
He took off down the aisle with me following him and yelling. I threw the heavy brake cylinder at him. I started grabbing anything I could get my hands on to throw at him. I kept screaming and throwing and he kept dodging and running. Everyone stopped what they were doing to watch the show. When I finally calmed down, I went into the bathroom and locked myself in a stall and cried. Eventually I pulled myself together and went back to work. I didn’t want to lose my job for leaving my press.
Later that day in the lunch room, the other ladies laughed and congratulated me, saying “You sure told Gilbert what for.” Nothing ever came of the big blow up. No one got in trouble. I never went to the Lead-man, the Foreman, the General Manager, or to the personnel office about the incident. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I never even told my husband, because I knew he’d be very upset and would probably come to my place of work to teach Gilbert a lesson. He would feel obligated to defend my honor. He was more of a hot head back then and I was afraid of how he’d react. And it goes without saying, he’d expect me to quit my job.
But what did happen is that Gilbert never spoke to me again in the remaining six months that I worked there. He avoided me to the point that everyone noticed. The ladies would laugh in the lunch room and say, “Boy, you sure scared old Gilbert. I saw him creeping around the back of the machines to keep from crossing your path.”
At first I blamed myself for allowing Gilbert to talk to me like that for so long. I beat myself up for losing my temper and getting so out of control. I was grateful that no one told on me. The bosses did not seem to know anything even happened. (Unless they just ignored the whole incident so they would not have to deal with Gilbert or me.)
But the upside is that I felt my power. I had stood up for myself and I was successful. Gilbert no longer bothred me. And I was in good standing with my fellow workers. None of the other ladies had a problem with my blow-up. And maybe Gilbert behaved himself a little better after that. But then again, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he continued to harass other young women who were hired and ran them off. I like to think that years later when it became common knowledge that men cannot harass young women in the work place and get away with it, and Gilbert was older and no one could stand his shit any more, maybe some woman went to personnel on him and told her story and maybe Gilbert got fired. Or maybe not.