I vividly remember the spring of 1994. I was 26 and in my final year of law school and was an intern at the Republican National Committee’s legal counsel office. One afternoon, I got into an elevator to go downstairs and have lunch. A man stopped the door from closing and came inside. He immediately complimented me on my dress (by touching it at the hem) and said I was a “gorgeous little lady.”
I instantly recognized him. I don’t want to get into names, but he was a prominent national political figure.
He then asked me where I had been hiding and where I was staying. I smiled politely, but I was mortified on the inside. I didn’t respond, and thankfully, the elevator door opened. I couldn’t exit fast enough.
Whenever I saw him again from time to time over the next few weeks, I ran in another direction, He eventually got the hint and left me alone. But his actions are something I will never forget.
I told my mom by phone on the day our first encounter happened, as well as my roommate, who wanted me to report the incident. I knew better. I was a young, Black, female in my last semester of law school. Soon, I would be heading back to my home state of New Jersey to work for female Gov. Christie Whitman after my graduation. I was not willing to risk a backlash or lose my new job before I even got started. It’s what women did in the 1980s and 1990s. We kept our heads down and our mouths shut.
Fast forward to this week’s report by the New York state attorney general’s office – that Gov. Andrew Cuomo allegedly sexually harassed 11 women, including employees in his office.
Gov. Cuomo denies the allegations, which included touching women’s bodies without their consent. But his clueless, classless and evasive 63-year-old mansplaining took me back to the days early in my career as a budding young attorney and aspiring politico.
My encounter at the RNC was by no means the only time I faced sexual innuendo, sexual harassment or gender discrimination. It happened a lot back then, which is why I believe you see men (who were in their 20s, 30s and 40s back then) continue to engage in this kind of unacceptable behavior.
One of the things that Gov. Cuomo said is true, however. “I believe there is a difference of cultural and generational challenges at work here,” he said on Tuesday.
There is no doubt that some of what we are seeing from men like Gov. Cuomo is 100 percent generational. Actions like calling women “honey,” “sweetie” or “gorgeous.” Actions like winking at you, asking you out even if they were married and you were not, and so on. They learned this behavior as younger men, and it’s what they know as the norm.
Many of these men are of a certain age and generation. And when you confront them, they often act like little boys who are being unfairly attacked for just being nice, friendly or not understanding what they did that was wrong.
On one level, they are being truthful. They do not get that what they are doing is wrong. It’s disgusting to us as professional women of our time, and incomprehensible certainly to this new generation of young women and men alike. But, thankfully times are changing as more women are reporters and anchors in the national news media, law enforcement officers, attorneys general, judges, corporate CEOs and in other leadership roles that allow them to investigate, support, and help victims of such harassment have their voices heard. Would this investigation in New York have gone forward 20 years ago? The answer is likely a big NO.
The upside to this sordid mess is that senior men in elected roles in New York and nationally have (for many months) called for Gov. Cuomo to resign.
I believe that we finally turning a corner on the issue of sexual harassment and believing survivors. Yet, Justice Kavanuagh's denial was believed over Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who recounted her alleged sexual assault by him in high school. And Bill Cosby walked on a technicality after being found guilty of sexual assault by a jury of his peers.
We need to do a better job as mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, mentors and teachers of young men in making sure they understand that the behaviors modeled by older men demeaning women, objectifying women or worse are not acceptable.
Our sons need to know that there is a proper way to speak to a young woman that you like, and want to date, versus how you treat that same young woman at work. And when these boys grow up and become the next generation of elected officials, leaders and educators, my hope is they will swiftly call out other men who display such Neanderthal behavior against women. It is simply not acceptable, and we must call it out at every turn. Let’s pray that the next generation of men never have to guess what is and what is not acceptable conduct toward a woman at school, at work, or in life.
Sophia A. Nelson, Esq., is an award-winning author of three non-fiction books and a "Corporate Diversity Champion" (2012) award winner for her work in corporate diversity strategies and training for the Fortune 100. She has worked in the Congress, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and at one of the nation's largest law firms in public/government Affairs. Nelson is a frequent guest on NBC News and MSNBC, as well as many other networks, and she has written for various outlets including Essence, Huffington Post, The SGrio, Politico, Politico Magazine, CNN.com and Ebony.