I recently had the pleasure to meet a wonderful woman who has spent the majority of her career putting programs and processes in place in higher education that allowed women an equal opportunity education. What I love about her story is the fact that an unlikely hero made a decision to stand up for her, and changed her career path as well as those of all the women in the company in which they worked. Maggie Annschild, Ph.D., thank you for sharing. Here’s her story.

That’s just how men were in the 60’s and 70’s (add 80’s and 90’s).  It was a different culture back then – you know – locker room stuff – how they were brought up.  You can’t fault them.”

Hearing several men in the last six months,  and sometimes their wives and daughters use this excuse for crude language and gestures – sexual harassment – , brought back a memory I’d like to share with you.

It was the 1960’s.  I was seventeen, starting my first job out of High School as a librarian for an Engineering Company in Minneapolis.  The youngest of the two hundred employees and certainly the most naïve, I was taken under the wings of the older secretaries and assistants, all of whom were women.  The building was divided into two sections; about fifty professionals and support staff on one side and about one hundred fifty assemblers on the other.  This production side was putting together tiny probes for the space program.  It was an exciting time for the United States and for this innovative startup company.

My job was to file all paperwork and keep track of all the technical books in the library as well as going to the University to get more books requested by the engineers and inventors.  All was going well until about six months into my job.  Like I’d done many times when I needed clerical supplies I entered the production side of the building to walk down a corridor to the supply cage at the end.  Standing by the window waiting for my order I suddenly felt a hand swat/grope my butt.  Without a second’s pause I pivoted on the ball of my foot and backhanded someone across the face.  That someone was Mr. S., the Vice President of Sales and Marketing.  Stunned, I walked as fast as I could past the curious, incredulous workers who had observed or heard the slap, and hid in the library.

Within ten minutes Mr. S’s administrative assistant was at my desk.  She could not believe what she had been told; that I had slapped her boss across the face in front of all the assemblers.  She said, “I like you but you have gone way out of line.  You’ve embarrassed a very important person and I’m afraid there is no saving your job.  You should have known better.  This is just how it is.  You have to learn to smile and pretend nothing is happening.”

The president’s secretary came next.   She said, “I really like you and would like to help you but this might be too serious.  I’ll talk to Dr. W. but he doesn’t like this kind of thing and I’m not sure I can save your job.”

I left at five o’clock, sneaking out the side door.  I was so confused, so scared, so embarrassed.  I slept little that night wondering how I’d find another job.

The next morning, I went in to work and was immediately called to the office of the head of HR, former military, buzz cut, never smiling, big guy.  He said he’d heard what had happened from several sources and he’d like to hear the story from me.  So I told him:  I was waiting in front of supply cage, a hand grabbed my butt; I pivoted and slapped not knowing who had done it.  A very short story.  He said he’d have to write a report but that this was too serious for him to make a decision.

About an hour later I was told to report to Mr. H’s office.   He was the Vice President and seemed to answer only to the President.  He said he’d heard the story that the whole company seemed to be telling but that he’d like to hear it from me.  I retold my very short story.  He said, “I believe you.  A hundred workers saw it.  I’ve listened to Mr. S. and I believe you.  I will tell Mr. S. that if he wants to save his position here, he needs to go to you and apologize, and the apology must be good enough, sincere enough, that you accept it.  When you tell me that has happened, this incident will be closed.

Back in my library, about two hours later Mr. S.came with hunched shoulders barely able to look at me, with his apology.  It included that he couldn’t afford to lose this position as he was Catholic and had eight children!  I still remember his three piece navy blue serge suit as he left with an accepted apology.

In the l960’s SOME MEN harassed, abused their power, and took advantage.

And in the 1960’s SOME MEN listened, investigated, believed, and defended the women brave enough to claim their space and dignity.

I can’t claim bravery as my reaction to being groped inappropriately was not premeditated.  I’m sure that instant slap was made possible by my Mother’s and teacher’s words, “Remember, no one touches you without your invitation.”

In looking back on this I marvel at Mr. H’s wisdom and leadership.  The Company and all the women who had warned me I’d be fired, and all the men who harassed those women would never be the same.  The climate had changed.  No tolerance for harassment was the new air we all breathed.  And all two hundred of us knew it at the same time and did our jobs with renewed appreciation of OUR company.