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An Indecent Proposal In Vancouver Led Me To A Feminist-Historian

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It was the summer the Married Man asked me to have sex with him.

"Didn't your wife's mother just die of cancer?" I asked.

"Yeah" he said. "She's just not motivated these days." Apparently, he'd been fantasizing about sleeping with me since we started working together at the Science Centre. I had just finished work and was on my way home when the Married Man dropped by work to tell me about this exciting plan.

It was August and Vancouver was under a hot spell. I pulled down the hem of my shorts and crossed my arms over my tank top.

The much older, pale-skinned ginger whispered, his mouth stinking of cigarettes and gum: "So, I'm really hoping you'll say yes. I really want to do this."

No thanks, I said and hoofed it out of there like a race-walking athlete on steroids, cutting through the jammed parking lot, hoping the cars would hide me from the six-foot ginger's creepiness.

The Married Man kept pestering me, never once asking if I had a boyfriend, children, if I was a lesbian. Or a psycho. After weeks of ignoring him, hiding in the bathroom, telling myself to behave and don't do anything, I reported the Married Man for sexual harassment.

I found out he also propositioned another co-worker, an art student 20 years younger than him. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and the Married Man offered himself as a rebound since he'd always wanted to sleep with her ever since they started working together.

"Oh gross. He's even using the same line," I told her. You should report him for sexual harassment, I said. No, no, the student protested. It's nice of him. He thinks I'm attractive.

I almost believed except she was avoiding the Married Man like a needle-infested alley at night.

After reporting the Married Man, I ranted to friend and feminist, Ninotchka Rosca. It's all about his male privilege, I fumed. That's what I thought of right after he cornered me, I said.

"That's not what you were thinking," Ninotchka interrupted. "You instinctively thought you did something, that you seduced him. You blamed yourself."

Boom. Everything fell apart and fell into place. "How did you know?" I gasped.

Women are taught to be responsible for the sexual behaviour of men, Ninotchka explained, firing up a cigarette. Anything that's done to us is always thought as our fault, she said, exhaling.

It's good that you reported him, he sounds like a sexual predator. Then she told me sternly it was time to read The Creation of Patriarchy.

***

Growing up in an activist family — Dad was jailed during the Marcos dictatorship, and Mom created the first feminist organization for Filipino-Canadian women — I was thrown into a big world beyond Tiger Beat and Much Music.

My parents and I marched with striking elementary school teachers, and I suggested that my Grade 7 class take a field trip to Clayoquot Sound to support First Nations communities and environmentalists against logging activities. At my high school's public speaking competition, while my classmates raved about dinosaurs and eating vegetables, I lectured about sexual harassment after reading Katy Lyle's story in Seventeen magazine.

By my 20s, I was trying to bridge my experiences as a woman of colour in a Canada and the gender oppression that women face. As I wrestled with Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, I was co-authoring a report on Filipino mail-order brides. As I laboured over Alexandra Kollantai's glass water theory, I co-facilitated workshops on Filipino Women's history and migration. It was a colourful East meets West, feminist road trip that reflected my complicated personal and political landscapes.

However, a decade of feminism couldn't explain why the Married Man spooked me and how let down I felt by my female co-workers who excused his behaviour. Why were we divided? Most of all, I was disillusioned with myself; if I couldn't hold my own against the Married Man and sway my co-workers to side with me, what right did I have to call myself a feminist?

Enter feminist-historian Gerda Lerner and her lifelong career that examined the roots of patriarchy and feminist consciousness. Lerner, 92, passed away on Jan. 2, in her home in Madison, Wis.

Women's History as a discipline was unthinkable during Gerda's university years. In a 1988 interview, the academic recalled:

"When I started working on Women's History 30 years ago, the field did not exist...People did not think that women had a history worth knowing. There [were] professors who ... thought it was an exotic specialty and that I was wasting my talents pursuing it."

The popular opinion that Women's History was an exotic specialty drove Gerda to unearth and uphold Women's History as history — not an appendage to recorded "male" history.

Looking at the past, according to the Austrian-American, has been painful for women, "because ... we would learn that women had not done this, and they had not done that, and that ... women had contributed so little to the making of human society."

After creating a Women's History program at Sarah Lawrence College in 1972, Gerda wrote numerous books including The Rise of Feminist Consciousness and The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History, works that excavated women's history from the period of early humans to the slave era in the American South.

By cracking the Hammurabi Codex, re-interpreting archeological artifacts, and combing through the diaries of African-American women slaves, Gerda theorized that patriarchy is a dynamic system that has distorted women's intellectual creativity, and arrested the development of genuine sisterhood.

"In line with our historic gender-conditioning," Gerda wrote in The Creation of Patriarchy, "women have aimed to please and have sought to avoid disapproval. This is poor preparation for making the leap into the unknown required [to] fashion new systems."

As Gerda stubbornly encouraged women to transform themselves and society, she was also concerned about the impacts patriarchy had on men:

"The effect on men has been very bad too ... men have been given the impression that they're much more important in the world than they actually are and that's not a good way to become a human being...If you...think...that everything great in the world ... was created by men, than naturally, you have to look down on women. And naturally, you have to have different aspirations for your sons and for your daughters and I don't think that's good for men either."

In the end, Gerda Lerner's trailblazing vision for Women's History to be respected as human history provided a blueprint for generations of women to trust their own experiences so they can develop "intellectual courage ... the courage to reach farther than our grasp, the courage to risk failure."

The courage to become Gerda Lerner.

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