My First Boss | Part 2 of 2
There’s more than meets the eye in my new work setting. Though I’m a newcomer, the Boss already has a Miss Renich game he’s determined to play. I’m an unwilling target and participant.
What’s the name of his game?
Any of the following will do:
- Let’s Make Miss Renich Squirm
- Let’s Educate Miss Renich About Real Life
- Let’s See How Long it Takes to Make Miss Renich Blush
- Let’s See How Many Innuendos Miss Renich Can Take
- Let’s See How Many Inappropriate Comments I Can Make About Her
- Let’s Humiliate Miss Renich
- Let’s See How Close I Can Get to Her Before She Flinches and Moves Away From Me
The Boss plays these games regularly. He assumes an innocent, almost little-boy-like demeanor. He’s cunning and highly provocative. It seems I’m his play toy. If I had objected, I would have been the problem child, the young woman with the ‘dirty mind.’
Many episodes were public, with the Boss telling his latest off-color joke about women. Sometimes this happened in the presence of office staff, attorneys or other professionals gathered in his office for an informal conversation. Other times they were in the courtroom, with attorneys gathered around the front of his desk. Usually I was sitting beside him taking minutes. Laughter was expected from the gallery. Just a joke! No harm done!
From time to time he asked me to leave his office or the courtroom while he told a particularly disgusting ‘joke.’ When I returned, I took my place beside him as his secretary, facing the office or courtroom gathering of men. This was worse than hearing the off-color, contempt-filled ‘joke’ firsthand.
Other episodes took place in relative privacy. Sometimes I was sitting beside him in his car, traveling to another city for hearings. Sometimes we were eating breakfast or dinner in the hotel restaurant in full view of other patrons.
The worst episodes included these humiliations:
- We’re in his car, traveling. Out of the blue he poses direct questions and makes comments about my body, including particular body parts he would very much like to look at. I freeze and move as close to the passenger side door as I can.
- We’re in the restaurant eating supper. He makes countless offers to come into my hotel room after hours and give me a back rub—assuring me that he’s safe and won’t do anything to harm me. I always decline yet I always feel somehow implicated.
- We’re in the restaurant eating or getting on the elevator. He gloats when people assume I’m his new wife or his ‘date’ for the evening. (“Boy, he’s got hisself a young-un tonight!”) Then there was the added joy of telling his friends all about this the next day, or week, or month.
- We’re back in the car, traveling. He offers endless unasked for premarital advice—knowing I’m engaged to be married and that I’m a virgin. I wish I were on another planet.
This happened in the early 1960s. The phrase ‘sexual harrassment’ didn’t exist until the early 1970s. Every woman was out there by herself, having to play it by ear, and—like me—praying fervently that she’ll get out of this unscathed. I know that if I raise a ruckus, I’ll be blamed! My father taught me well.
Yes, I get angry thinking about those days.
At the same time, I’m clear about this: I wouldn’t have made it without the wise counsel and encouragement of several older women with whom I worked. They knew him well. Here’s one example.
During my full year working for the Boss, the year leading up to my marriage, I did most of the week-long trips. One day I was getting the leather file cases (like boxy suitcases) ready for the next trip. I was cleaning them out so I could fill them with paper files for court hearings in the cities and counties we would visit.
I saw a paper bag in the bottom of one of the cases. To my chagrin, it contained an opened box of condoms. My heart almost stopped beating. This item was definitely not in the right place! But what to do about it?
I went to the woman who had traveled more with him than the others and showed her what I’d found. She agreed this was most inappropriate, and asked me how I was feeling. I told her I was angry, and that it made me sick to my stomach. Not because of what it was, but because now I had to do something about it.
She asked me what I wanted to do with it. I wasn’t sure. She suggested I take it to him in his office, hand it back, and tell him I didn’t appreciate his leaving it in the office file case.
I got my courage together, walked in and handed him the paper bag. He looked in the bag, got a strange look on his face, dropped his voice, told me not to talk about it and that it wouldn’t happen again. I knew his wife. She knew me. I told him I wanted it clear that this was not mine, and that I did not want to find it in one of the travel bags again. He agreed, and I left the office. Shaken and distressed.
What did I ‘learn’ from all this?
For better and for worse, here’s what comes to mind:
- The women around me are understanding and empathetic, yet they have no power to stop this nonsense.
- If I want to keep this job I need to adjust, show up for work, and keep my mouth shut.
- Nothing I say or do will change the Boss.
- Most men cover for the Boss, even though they don’t always like the Boss’s behavior.
- Most men won’t take an open, public stand on behalf of women. I’m on my own.
- Nothing and nobody is sacred, including me.
Do I regret taking this job? No! This was the first time I’d worked with and for everyday, ordinary human beings. That includes the people with whom I worked, and the people for whom we did our work: women and men in financial difficulty who needed help and time to pay off their debts. Their courage and persistence shaped me then and still shape me now. They weren’t cowardly and they weren’t too proud to ask for help, even though they didn’t like all their circumstances any more than I liked all of mine.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 December 2014