It was 1995 or 1996 – my junior or senior year in college – and my friends and I were making the Yale Political Union’s annual trek to Washington, DC, to meet with elected officials and political players. The meetings were intended to challenge our thinking on public policy. But for me, one meeting was different.
Our itinerary included then Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who died in 2003 at the age of 100. Given my own heritage as a paradoxically left-leaning Baptist preacher’s kid from small-town Georgia, I was looking forward – in a pugnacious sort of way – to meeting this bastion of old-school white racism. Thurmond claimed to not be racist, but he’d fought integration with the longest filibuster in Senate history, in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957. I imagined taking him down a notch with a cutting question, delivered in my sweetest Southern drawl.
As our group walked toward Thurmond’s office, one of the other students, by far the most knowledgeable about politics, turned to me excitedly.
“You know, you’re exactly his type,” he said.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
He went on to explain that I was Southern and young and had long blonde hair – just what the Senator fancied. I laughed: after all, Thurmond was by then in his 90s, and how could my friend possibly know his “type” anyway?
When we entered Thurmond’s office, though, a high percentage of his visible staff fit the profile. After the Senator spoke – and after I tried (and failed) to make an impression during the questions – it was time for the obligatory group picture.
With Thurmond behind his desk, we arranged ourselves on his left and right. I happened to be toward the front, so I ended up standing right beside the seated Senator. As someone motioned for us all to squeeze in closer, the 90-something-year-old Thurmond reached over to the 20-something-year-old me, and gave me a firm double pat on the thigh, curving his hand to fit.
“Honey, I don’t mind if you wanna come a little closer.”
I looked at him in shock, hardly believing, trying to process the difference in our age, in our positions. And then I turned and smiled for the camera.
After we left, I shared what happened with my prescient friend and those who hadn’t overheard – the Senator had been subtle enough – and we all had a good laugh. In years subsequent, I have told and re-told this story, always as a fun anecdote.
But with all the news lately, I realize this shouldn’t have been a joke. Did I feel threatened? Not at all. He was in his 90s, and I was surrounded by friends. Was I offended? Yes, but perhaps not as much as I should have been. I’ve always been a “guilty feminist” who’s secretly flattered when catcalled on the street.
When all my girlfriends were putting #MeToo on Facebook several weeks ago, I didn’t. I don’t think I felt entitled. Yes, I’ve had run of the mill sexual harassment, but at low levels compared to most. I’ve never been raped, although I completely believe the under-reported prevalence of this crime. As for the one or two times I felt truly threatened… well, I’d rather not talk about that ever, especially not on Facebook (though I respect and often admire those who are willing share their own experiences).
The problem, though, is that by making light of Senator Thurmond’s inappropriate gesture, by making it a cocktail party laugh, I became complicit.
When I googled Thurmond to research the years of his birth and death, his New York Times obituary notably included the following: “He was also known for fondling women in Senate elevators, including a woman who turned out to be a fellow senator, much to his surprise.”
There’s humor there too – a sort of fond reminiscing for a civil servant who also happened to be a (supposedly) harmless (if racist) dirty old man. But neither The New York Times’ humor nor my own – nor current Senator Al Franken’s – are harmless. They’re complicit in a culture that both sides of the aisle know well – complicit in an abuse of power that, whether in Hollywood or the Capitol or the office building down the street, is just now being brought to light.
I’m sorry I joked about the Senator’s actions because, for other women under other circumstances, this sort of behavior wasn’t and isn’t funny at all. The good news is that maybe, just maybe, the jig is up. And maybe I have the courage to say #MeToo.