#MeToo is going too far for some veteran feminists

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March 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

 

Shirley Jonas atop the Whitney Museum of American Art on Gansevoort St. Photo by Mary Reinholz

BY MARY REINHOLZ

Longtime West Village resident Shirley Jonas is a woman of a certain age, a former freelance television producer for outfits like Fox Broadcasting. She also spent 15 years working on staff at another national news division.

She now supports #MeToo, the new feminist movement which has spurred a tsunami-like wave of working women calling out bosses for sexual misconduct, many apparently after reading exposes in The New York Times and The New Yorker about alleged assaults by now-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

“It’s about time,” Jonas said during a lunch Saturday at the Bus Stop Cafe on Hudson St.

Accusations of sexual harassment have swiftly ended the careers of famous men in media, government and entertainment, among them decades-long television hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. The latter’s persona as a genial Southern gent interviewing people on CBS and PBS stands in sharp contrast to complaints last year that he greeted female staffers in his bathrobe, made unwanted advances and pranced around naked.

As for Lauer, Jonas dismissed the former iconic anchor of NBC’s “Today” show as a “predator,” when Jonas was asked about woman’s claim in 2001 that he had locked his office door from a button under his desk and sexually assaulted her.

Full disclosure: She and I have known each other for four decades, but I can’t recall Jonas, a trim brunette, complaining about men hitting on her at work. Asked Saturday if she had experienced sexual harassment during her career, she let loose with a sardonic laugh over her turkey burger.

“In my business, that was part of the territory,” she said.

She went on to describe a hostile environment at her first TV news job in the late 1960s. It was while she was an assignment editor for a station in her native Detroit, where she had covered the 1967 Detroit riots for Time magazine.

Jonas recalled being the only woman “above the secretarial level” at the station, which she compared to a “male locker room,” replete with “innuendos and [verbal] attacks.”

She was fired after about three years.

“Nobody paid any attention to the [civil rights] law” at the time, she said. “I was fired by my boss, who told me, ‘I’ve got to let you go because the men don’t like taking orders from a woman.’ ”

After working several years in Chicago for a CBS affiliate, Jonas relocated to New York in 1973. She finally landed a gig as an assignment editor, filling in as a vacation replacement at the aforementioned news division. She was eventually tapped for a permanent position that lasted until 1988, when she accepted a buyout from the company, offering severance packages to “older” employees.

Looking back, she remembers how on-camera stars like Leslie Stahl, who are now in their 60s and 70s, were hired when managers began vigorously implementing affirmative action. This was in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s 1972 inclusion of women in its affirmative-action mandate, often cynically looking for “twofers”: women of color who would fulfill requirements for both females and minority hires.

Jonas also recalls how women sometimes “seduced” male bosses to advance their careers.

“In my day, the way you got ahead was by agreeing to have sexual relationships with men,” said, bluntly. “I could name a lot of women, but I won’t. Sometimes they seduced the men and they became boyfriend and girlfriend or got married and the woman got promoted.”

As for her ability to survive stressful work with long hours in a highly competitive industry, she acknowledged “It wasn’t a fun time. But it wasn’t all the time, it wasn’t every day,” noting she stayed on because of her need for a steady paycheck as a divorced, self-supporting single woman.

She attributes the start of the #MeToo movement’s traction on social media to individuals — “two or three brave and heroic women, like Rose McGowan and other women who came out against Harvey Weinstein,” she said. “That opened the floodgates.”

The movement’s origins date back a dozen years to when Tarana Burke, a black woman activist reared in Queens, heard a 13-year-old girl describe sexual abuse. She began trying to connect with females, mostly black and brown, who had similar experiences, looking to heal through empathy. In 2017, Burke founded a nonprofit called Just Be Inc. and named her crusade, MeToo. Burke, who is currently a senior director of Girls for Gender Equity in Downtown Brooklyn, was named a 2017 Time magazine Person of the Year along with other activists dubbed “The Silence Breakers.”

Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano was also lauded by Time for turning Burke’s two-word phrase into the hashtag #MeToo via an October 2017 tweet. In it, Milano asked women to share their experiences of sexual abuse on social media to show “the magnitude” of the problem. Within 24 hours, there were more than 12 million “Me Too” Facebook posts, comments and reactions, CBS News reported.

More recently, however, there has been harsh criticism of #MeToo in France, with film legend Catherine Deneuve joining 99 other prominent French women in signing a letter saying the movement has gone “too far,” claiming it has produced censorship and intolerance.

American novelist Daphne Merkin recounted in a New York Times op-ed last month how even some feminists wonder when the next man will lose his job over “unproven” accusations of sexual harassment.

Shirley Jonas, whose story began this account, believes there was an “egregious” rush to judgment when Morgan Stanley fired former Tennessee congressmember Harold E. Ford, Jr., in December, on the basis of a complaint by a Reuters journalist who claimed the Wall St. executive sexually harassed her several years ago after a bank dinner. He was terminated following a “brief investigation” by Morgan Stanley, according to The New York Times.

Ford, who denied the allegation, was taken off the air as a political analyst to MSNBC the next day. Ford’s attorney apparently forced Morgan Stanley to clarify its statement on the matter, with the company saying Ford was terminated “not for sexual harassment” — as claimed by media reports — but for an unexplained breach of “corporate policy.” Vindicated, he went back to work at MSNBC for president Trump’s State of the Union address last week, The New York Post’s Page Six reported.

There was far more furor over the forced resignation of former U.S. Senator Al Franken, a liberal Democrat from Minnesota who left his seat on Jan. 2 amid complaints of sexual harassment from six women. This, of course, came after President Trump had been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, and been caught boasting about grabbing females by the genitals on the “Access Hollywood” tape. Franken noted the irony in a passionate speech on the Senate floor.

His decision to leave the Senate before the Ethics Committee completed its investigation stirred anger among some Democrats, including radical feminists active since the early days of the women’s liberation movement.

One of them was Susan Brownmiller, 82, author of the groundbreaking 1975 book on rape, “Against Our Will,” written at her apartment on Jane St. Brownmiller circulated a petition on Facebook calling on the Senate in December to allow Franken to remain in the Senate. The petition noted: “There is a difference between abuse and a mistake.”

Former Judge Emily Jane Goodman

Manhattan attorney Emily Jane Goodman, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice who has been involved with many feminist causes, helped to create a Facebook group called “Feminists for Franken.” The group countered a claim by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, that there should be no “gradations” made in assessing problematic sexual conduct:

“We believe it is crucial to make distinctions and to respond proportionally,” the group’s mission statement reads.

In an e-mail to this reporter, Goodman, who appeared on CNN to argue the matter, said that it was a “mistake” for Franken to have resigned and “a miscalculation for the Democrats to push him out. He had offered to co-operate with the appropriate ethics committee,” Goodman said. “But such such a process was rejected by his [Democratic] colleagues. If the goal was to show that the Dems are better than the other party, that is laughable because it has no such effect. You cannot compare the conduct of Trump or [Roy] Moore with the allegations against Franken. What has been accomplished is to push out a reliable vote on women’s issues and an overall progressive senator leaving the seat open to Republicans, even Michele Bachmann.”

So goes the back and forth in a divided America at a time when an accused sexual predator occupies the Oval Office — a situation that has not been without precedent in the U.S.

Eleanor Pam, president of Veteran Feminists of America, recalls when Anita Hill was vilified in 1991 for accusing then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She also recalls how, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, other females were routinely disbelieved in their stories of victimization and called “nuts and sluts.”

Pam believes that Harvey Weinstein’s alleged “assaults and perversions” led to a collective “ah-ha” moment  in the national consciousness, when both men and women got the message imparted by #MeToo.

“In the past, women who accused men of sexual harassment were seldom believed,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In the current climate, it’s the men accused of sexual harassment who are seldom believed. Ironic that this recent societal demand for upgraded decency, moral behavior and respect for women should occur at a political time when traditional standards of behavior and social mores have been significantly downgraded.”

Graphic artist Tina Rossner, a seventysomething former New York City Chelsea girl now living in New Mexico, said she experienced plenty of sexual harassment working for top ad agencies in her youth — right out of “Mad Men.” But she had no problem when she took a job at the now-defunct Screw magazine because, she said, “people were very lighthearted about sex” at the tabloid and besides, a lot of the men were gay.

And there were no problems with the late Screw publisher Al Goldstein, either, Rossner added, noting he just went through the motions of being a womanizer “as a joke.”

First appeared in the February 8, 2018 The Villager, a weekly newspapers that serves Lower Manhattan in New York City.

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