Commentary

Most men can’t fully understand what women go through with guys like Cuomo, but we have to try

Respecting women’s persons and their dignity.

August 16, 2021 12:02 am

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media at the Javits Convention Center which is being turned into a hospital to help fight coronavirus cases on March 24, 2020 in New York City. New York City has about a third of the nation’s confirmed coronavirus cases, making it the center of the outbreak in the United States. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

The message has been out there for decades, but for whatever reasons, guys have been too slow to heed it.

And it’s not complicated. Or at least I don’t think it is.

Respect women. Respect their work and their right to do any work they set their minds to. And pay them commensurately, as you would men.

Respect their persons and their dignity. Do not trespass upon that, neither with your words nor your physical actions. Try remembering that she’s someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s sister, wife or mom.

Those are hardly commandments from an expert. Rather they are from a guy raised amid the “Mad Men” ethos of the mid-20th century, who is still trying to fully understand it all and to do the right thing.

It’s easy for me and probably for most men to look at the findings in an independent investigation commissioned by New York’s state attorney general into the misdeeds of departing Gov. Andrew Cuomo and feel smug; to condemn Cuomo for behavior that’s plainly outrageous and possibly illegal (ultimately a determination the courts will make).

But then, it’s a low bar for a guy to take consolation that he’s no serial masher like Cuomo.

I am told by my wife, who means it in the nicest way, that I will never get it; that I can’t get it because I haven’t lived it.

She’s right.

I haven’t known what it’s like to compete with other talented applicants for employment or advancement while bearing the weight of bogus biases that have historically penalized women looking for equity in the workplace.

I’ve never known the trepidation of walking into my boss’s office to tell him that I will have to take several months off to bring a new human being into the world. Nor have I had to walk into the boss’s office and be lewdly propositioned in exchange for job security.

I’ve always had the luxury of hanging in there a few hours after quitting time to finish a project, unaffected by the pressing imperative of racing to daycare to pick up the kids, to take them home, to feed them and get them off to bed. There’s no way I could multitask like that and observe that sort of time discipline. I have trouble making toast and boiling water at the same time.

The idea of having my head on a swivel, fearfully scanning a dusky parking lot is foreign to me. So is the degradation of having a stranger’s hand prowl my body in a crowded elevator or subway. And I never had to teach my two sons the evasive tactic of not driving directly home but, rather, taking an elusive route if they spot a strange car tailing them for several blocks.

I’ve never known the sort of quid-pro-quo predations, libidinous or otherwise, that are visited upon women every day in workplaces all over the country – the exact sort of unwanted come-ons and indecent proposals that 11 women described Cuomo as inflicting upon them in recent years.

I can’t imagine the loneliness of enduring it all by myself, terrified of confiding even in my closest friends, much less reporting it to the human resources department or even law enforcement.

And because I’ve never known that pain and humiliation, I can imagine but not really know the dread felt by women placed in those circumstances through no failing of their own — the fear that by rejecting someone with power over them that their livelihoods and possibly their reputations are in jeopardy.

Not only have I never known those miseries myself, I never had a sister or the blessing of raising a daughter and gleaning from it the insights attendant to the triumphs and heartbreaks that only girls can know as they grow up. I dearly love my grown stepdaughter (and her sweet, goofy dog), and I am grateful for what I learn even from that.

So even late in the game, I still struggle, learning on-the-job to recognize my blind spots and to confront lingering subconscious prejudices rooted in the Deep South macho rural and football culture of my youth.

I’ve worked as a subordinate to several women in a long career in news and communications. Every one of my female direct supervisors was professional yet genial; fair yet held me to account; was at once a good listener and a teacher. I’ve been so very lucky.

I’ve supervised women, and my luck carried over there as well. Among them have been some of the most dedicated, talented and team-oriented colleagues I have ever known.

And I’ve worked as a peer alongside amazing and inspiring women journalists. From them, I learned lessons about strength and grace under pressure, about perseverance and good humor in the face of adversity, about integrity and doing the right thing even when no one’s watching. In the ribald, free-wheeling newsrooms of yesteryear, they endured boorish behavior and off-color language from their colleagues (a much younger, dumber me among them) yet they remained poised and sometimes even bested us at our own puerile games.

The world of news was still very much a male-dominated game in the mid-1970s when women began graduating in significant numbers from journalism schools and entering the worlds of newspapering and broadcasting. I saw it firsthand. Nothing was handed to them. They had to do everything their sometimes-unwelcoming male counterparts did and do it better. Many of them did and the news and public relations professions of today are beneficiaries of it.

Without regard for gender, as a press corps covering Virginia’s Capitol we competed hard, we celebrated hard, we respected one another and each had the other’s back. It was a unique professional bond that forged strong, indelible friendships.

I know those experiences still leave me a long way from fully comprehending the competitive and interpersonal disadvantages unique to women. Just when we think the playing field is a little more even, something like the Cuomo revelations comes along to show us all that this is still a very long journey.

Virginia got its wakeup call nearly 20 years ago when the Washington Post’s Robert Melton broke a bombshell story that the first Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, Vance Wilkins, had paid $100,000 to buy a woman’s silence about his alleged unwanted sexual advances. Wilkins’ GOP caucus turned against him, forcing his resignation. Looking to make a clean break, the caucus nominated, and the full House elected, the squeaky-clean if inconspicuous Del. Bill Howell as speaker.

In the years since, we’ve seen the likes of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Fox News executive Roger Ailes and Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly and even Bill Cosby, a former TV idol once venerated as America’s Dad, fall far more spectacularly than Wilkins. And now, a governor retreats in disgrace.

Each time, as jolting as every episode was, the cause of women and their right to not be objectified and preyed upon rightfully gained strength. As each man was held to account, it served as a clarifying and teachable moment — to persuade men to understand women’s plight and fight for them, to grow up a little.

Or at least to try.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

MORE FROM AUTHOR