The #MeToo movement has prompted countless numbers of women to re-examine the impact sexual harassment and abuse has had on their lives and the pain the trauma continues to cause, even decades later.
When Virginia Dawson looks back on her nursing career, her voice fills with pride.
Working as a registered nurse, she put her husband through graduate school for his Ph.D., supporting a family that eventually grew to five. The work was as meaningful and satisfying as she hoped when she was a teenager imagining a life beyond homemaking.
Lately, though, there’s something about the job that Dawson remembers with such clarity that it makes her hands shake, even after 70 years.
“The whole thing is very vivid in my mind,” Dawson, 88, says as she recalls the decades-old trauma. “I still get very frightened about it.”
It’s been that way for months now as Dawson once again bears the emotional brunt of the actions of a doctor, undoubtedly dead by now, whose full name she has forgotten.
Dawson, who is retired and living in Issaquah, didn’t dwell on the incident — or even think about it much — until the #MeToo movement with its stories of harassment and abuse of women by men pushed it to the forefront of her mind.
It has stayed there, raising anew the same unsettling questions she began asking in 1945: What would have happened if the charge nurse hadn’t intervened after hearing her yell? What would have happened had she reported the doctor who tried to abduct her? How many other nurses weren’t so lucky?
And new questions: Why does she feel so compelled to talk about it now? And why does the memory still evoke such pain and confusion? Even Dawson doesn’t completely understand it.
Confronting sexual harassment and abuseThe #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. From actors in Hollywood to security guards at the Seattle Public Library, more people are coming forward with painful and intimate stories of abuse, casting new light on behavior that for too long has been dealt with in whispers, secret settlements or not at all. So where do we go from here? The Seattle Times' occasional series explores that and other questions as we move forward in this changed landscape.
Unlike the stories involving celebrities and public figures, where careers and marriages are damaged or ended in the telling, Dawson’s story lives in a different place, one where countless other women find themselves as they consider the impact that sexual harassment and abuse has had on their lives.
After seven decades, there is no one to punish. No “she said, he said” to parse.
Without a public reckoning, the experiences of Dawson and other women are divorced from the justice system and the court of public opinion. Freed of the need to judge, we can see sexual harassment through a different lens, and better understand how what we do to each other creates the kind of pain that lingers long into the future.
Recently, The Seattle Times asked people to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace; more than 120 did so. While many women described the painful details of what happened to them, the sharpest ache was often about what didn’t happen: The supervisor who did nothing. The careers that evaporated, jobs declined, promotions not pursued. The women who weren’t protected because they didn’t know the danger.
They want to tell to reconcile their feelings, and in some cases to leave them behind. They tell now to help other women because they know — we all know — it’s still happening.
VIRGINIA DAWSON, 88
“I never talked about it with anyone who could do anything about it.”
The doctors at the hospital where Dawson received her nurse training as an 18-year-old in the late 1940s breathed rarefied air.
“They were almost revered,” Dawson says.
The hospital thrummed with the energy of young nursing students like Dawson who were enrolled in nearby Wheaton College, the Christian liberal arts college in Illinois where she found her calling.
Having dated in high school, Dawson emerged from her hometown confident in her ability to handle roaming hands. But it didn’t prepare her for the busy hospital, where the doctors made their own rules.
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One doctor in particular, made her life miserable. “He would hide around corners or in the elevator waiting areas where he would suddenly appear and paw at my uniform as if to see my name written on a pin above the pocket on my chest.”
She tried to avoid him, but one day, outside a patient’s room, he grabbed her by the shoulders and dragged her toward the doors of the morgue elevator he had just summoned.
A charge nurse down the hall heard Dawson yell, “No!” and came running, arriving just as the doctor disappeared behind the elevator door, headed to the basement morgue. Flustered and frightened, Dawson said nothing.
She described the encounter in a letter to her father, who urged her to report it to the nursing director. A student nurse’s word over a doctor’s? No way. Her career would be over before it started, she says.
Instead, she stepped into a patient’s room whenever she saw him. Dawson still believes her silence allowed her to have a nursing career. And yet, she wonders who else might he have preyed on? And how many others like him are out there today? The thought shakes her.
She wasn’t able to tell then. So she wants to tell now so that some young woman somewhere might be better prepared than she was when a predator comes calling.
BARBARA BARNETT, 64
“There’s not a ‘getting over’ it. Your brain chemistry changes from trauma and that’s the struggle.”
↓ Watch her story ↓
Barbara Barnett does not regret joining the Army in 1971 when she was 19 years old. But she does regret what happened to her while she was completing her advanced training as a typist at Fort Ord in California. A drill sergeant she didn’t know brutally attacked and raped her. She didn’t report it.
“Everybody reacts differently. For me, I just kept quiet about it.” She didn’t realize how numb she had become to it, the sense of amnesia mixed with denial that kept the experience locked far away in her mind, until the memories started coming back years later.
“That’s when the trouble started,” she says of her long-term battle with the effects of trauma. Now disabled by PTSD and living on Whidbey Island, she uses painting as an emotional outlet and donates the sales of her work to ArtLifting, a company that created a marketplace for low-income, homeless and disabled artists.
TANI RAE STANDRIDGE, 60
“Each injustice burns us and leaves scars that change who we are and how we navigate our world.”
Tani Rae Standridge has never felt like the walking wounded. If there’s one thing the world of work taught the 60 year old it’s that you adjust, accept, brush off and move on.
Still, the corrosive effects of workplace harassment have diminished her, she says, and diverted her from her chosen career.
Like most women, Standridge can tick off scores of encounters, too many to fully list. But there’s one she wants to tell.
She was 19 when, in 1976, she moved to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to work as an electrical apprentice on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Outnumbered 10-to-1 by male co-workers, she and another woman shared a trailer in the remote work camp on the North Slope of Alaska, ignoring the advice of co-workers to find a boyfriend for protection while she was there.
Standridge likened the experience to “living in a minefield of male bombs” that would explode intermittently, subjecting her to harassment, disdain and assault. She never complained, never reported anything, not even when she was raped while recovering from an illness in the camp’s sick bay, she says.
She was in a Demerol haze at the time, she says, and was sure her fuzzy memory and sexual history wouldn’t lend itself to any kind of justice.
Standridge says she became less flirtatious to avoid attracting attention. She still wore her “Foxy Lady” T-shirt along with her hard hat, but she dialed way back on her vivaciousness and stayed focused on the job.
After a year, she was ready to return home. She was proud of the work she’d done, and sad to be leaving the men she’d labored with under harsh conditions to build something important. With her bag packed, she went to say farewell to one of the men she considered a good friend. Her heart sank.
A pair of her underwear, stolen from her trailer during her goodbye party, was tacked prominently to the wall of the tool room where he worked. Had she not stopped by to see him on her way to the bus, it would likely have hung there for as long as the building stood to amuse her co-workers while she remained ignorant of the prank.
“I was at a place for a year with co-workers and companions, and this is how they remembered me,” she says, her voice cracking. “They took away what was meaningful to me as a person and turned it into a joke.”
The shame of forgetting her place, for thinking she was equal to the men she worked alongside, stung the most, she says.
“Each time it happens, it’s a little dehumanizing,” she says. “Instead of feeling like an equal partner respected for your brain and brawn, it makes you less than you could be one little notch at a time.”
After the pipeline, Standridge vowed to remain forever single. But she met a man who treated her as an equal, and married him when she was 30. Their relationship stood in stark contrast to her treatment — and the treatment of other women — in the workplace.
She eventually started her own real-estate business, buying, selling and remodeling homes, and now manages real estate.
When #MeToo started, she reposted a #MeToo post on her Facebook page, and watched with amazed delight as the floodgates opened.
“I was like my husband watching football,” she says. She cheered out loud, and yelled at the TV when anyone said they didn’t understand why women waited so long to tell.
“No, I don’t suppose you do understand,” she says, “but I do and so does every woman who has ever held her tongue and suffered in silence.” Predators may forget or minimize what they’ve done, but the victims don’t forget, she says.
The reckoning, she says, feels good, even if it took decades to arrive.
“I just never expected in my lifetime to see justice.”
REV. DORINDA HENRY, 52
“I’m triggered when I hear all this stuff about sexual harassment.”
Rev. Dorinda Henry, 52, says the course of her life changed when she filed a sexual-harassment complaint against her female boss who she says harassed her at work and forced sex on her during a visit to California.
Her former boss, who denies ever harassing anyone, is a lesbian, as is Henry. Rather than keep the complaint secret, the boss publicly disclosed it to a news reporter, attributing it to a troublesome employee who was trying to blackmail her. Henry says she was destroyed by the resulting publicity.
“What happens when the person who sexually harassed you, who forced themselves upon you is a woman? If you’re a woman, what then?” she asks.
“Are you going to give me the benefit of the doubt that what happened happened; that it was not my choice; that it made me uncomfortable; that it directly impacted me emotionally and psychologically; that it impacted my life socially and politically and privately? That it impacted me in such a way that 20-some-odd years later, I’m triggered when I hear all this stuff about sexual harassment?”
CAROL DARGATZ, 61
“The more I avoid it, the bigger it gets.”
A mortifying memory has followed Carol Dargatz around for 40 years.
It surfaces unexpectedly, summoning a wave of shame that leaves her face flushing red. Sometimes she reverses the tide by imagining what she could do to the man who caused it: Turn his cheeks red with an openhanded smash to the face.
“I can feel the sting and the power,” she says, her voice growing sharp with anger. “I would say, ‘You are an ass,’ and then, whack!” Once, in a dream, she pounded his head on concrete. She was pleased, when she searched for his obituary recently, to learn he had died eight years ago. She hoped it was painful, she says.
“I can still get angry, which is scary,” Dargatz says. “That’s how much power this has over me.”
Dargatz, though, is finally ready to drain the memory of its power. She wants to leave it right here, on this page. #MeToo, she says, has helped her shift the blame back where it belongs.
Dargatz was fresh out of college in the late 1970s when she landed her first job as an invoicing and data-processing clerk at a small, family-owned manufacturing firm outside Chicago.
Her knowledge of the work world was gleaned mostly from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a sitcom about a single woman living alone and working as a TV producer for a gruff but kind boss.
“I was so naive,” Dargatz says of her 21-year-old self, “so agreeable, so wanting to be the best employee and have everybody like me.”
When the company president summoned her to his office during a board meeting, she thought he probably needed copies or coffee for the dozen or so men gathered.
“Come closer,” he said, when she entered the room. “Closer.” When she was within arms reach, he tapped her on her thighs and hips with his fist, and asked if she knew what he’d done. With her confusion still fresh, he jumped to the punchline: He’d been “beating around the bush.”
The room erupted in laughter. “He laughed, too,” she says. “I was beet-red, and walked out. I got back to my desk, and somehow got through the rest of my day.”
For years, she told no one, not even her sister who picked her up after work that night when she slid into the passenger seat crying hysterically.
“The shame of somehow bringing this on myself,” she says. She shamed herself for not discerning his warped intentions. Blamed herself for trying to answer the question. Blamed herself for not quitting on the spot.
She told close friends only after she was confident they wouldn’t judge her, or ask: What’s the big deal? Can’t you take a joke?
After a long slog, Dargatz’s life came to look like that of Mary Richards, the successful career woman in the 1970s sitcom. She works for people who respect her, and at age 61, feels comfortable existing in the world as she pleases.
She’s grateful to the women who stirred up the uncomfortable feelings that finally led to her telling, she says. She’s no longer drowning in a wave of shame, she says. She can breathe now.
JOLINE BETTENDORF, 85
“I get angry at myself for not responding. It lasts a long time.”
Joline Bettendorf, 85, was the lone female working on the delivery deck of a cannery in the late 1940s when she befriended a middle-aged pea farmer who delivered his produce there a few times a week.
“He seemed old to me,” says Bettendorf, who was 16 at the time. “He was friendly and funny and kind of fun. We would joke back and forth.” One day, as he was leaving, the farmer pinched her breast and walked away. “I was immediately furious,” she says.
She followed after him and gave him a flat-footed kick on the butt — twice. She never saw the farmer again. Bettendorf encountered her share of harassment throughout life. The incidents that stayed with her are the ones she didn’t respond to, she says. “I get angry at myself for not responding. It lasts a long time.” Bettendorf says she’s always enjoyed the company of men. In college, she was surprised that the young men saw her friendliness as a sexual overture. “They didn’t understand,” she says, “that I was interested in them as a person.”
BARBARA COOK, 77
“I don’t want any more 16-year-olds grabbed in the ass.”
Barbara Cook grew up in a family that didn’t talk about intimate matters.
But nobody had to tell her there was something wrong when, at 16, she began working as a cashier at an A&P market to save money for college.
At the start and end of every shift, Cook had to turn her body sideways to squeeze past a male manager who positioned himself at the entrance of the small cubby that held the time clock.
“He got to feel our boobs,” says Cook. Although she was grossed out, she never mentioned it to friends who also worked there, not even when they were in the basement breakroom.
Cook was climbing the basement stairs one day when the manager followed behind and grabbed her backside. She remembers thinking, “No. This is it,” and landed a mule kick on his body. She continued climbing the stairs without so much as a glance backward.
Just like that, she says, a feminist was born. And just like that, her job was gone.
“You put up with that every damn morning for eight months … I was through with him,” she says. She told no one. It was 1956. Her friends thought she’d been fired because he never scheduled her to work again.
Cook went to college with her mother’s help, earning a bachelor’s in education. She married, and became active with the American Association of University Women, and helped open Olympia’s first family-planning clinic.
She worked for a family-planning agency, and then began investigating workplace complaints for the state’s human rights commission in the 1980s.
Cook took a special interest in the sexual harassment complaints, but her boss dismissed them as personality conflicts, and told her to close the cases. She held onto them, telling the women to move on with their lives with the assurance that she would not forget them.
In 1979, she investigated what would become a famous case against a hiring manager at Simpson Timber Co. who denied a woman a job because she was “too well-endowed.” The woman eventually prevailed.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination, Cook began workplace training at companies that were often hostile to the new law. At one company, a man shook his fist at her. “Who do you think you are to tell us how to treat our women?” he asked.
During trainings, Cook recounted her own harassment at the grocery store, secretly hoping that the grabby manager would hear that, even decades later, she was airing his dirty laundry.
“I’m only doing this because, when I was 16, somebody grabbed my ass,” she explains. “Otherwise, I’d be a schoolteacher.”
SUZANNE RIAN, 78
“Anger keeps you moving forward. It made me want to do more and try harder.”
Suzanne Rian, 78, was the first woman hired at the Bothell Police Department in 1966. Brought on as an emergency dispatcher, she also served as backup for officers in the field, responding to calls in a uniform that consisted of a skirt, a blouse and black pumps that she had to kick off to chase after a suspect.
Eventually, she became a full-fledged cop. During her tenure, a fellow officer harassed her so badly that she had nightmares about him for years. She thrived in spite of it, she says, becoming an excellent shot and the top student in her law-enforcement classes.
Rian says she’s an optimist with a simple philosophy: “It’s not personal. It’s just because I’m a woman.”
One ritual, though, still rankles Rian: Whenever she went to the King County Jail in Seattle to book a suspect, Seattle officers hooted at her as she entered the building. “It would just piss me off,” she says. “But anger keeps you moving forward. It made me want to do more and try harder.”
BRETA ALTER, 63
“In the old days, you had to roll with these things.”
Breta Alter, 63, walked into the engineering world with her eyes wide open.
“I never saw myself as a girly-girl, but as a human who wanted to do what I wanted: build trucks, drive log trucks, sail …”
She paid a price for her persistence: an attempted rape at a construction site when she was just out of high school, sexual advances by an engineering professor, a body slam by a co-worker who threatened to kill her after she reported him for licking her neck, stalking, and threatening cartoons left on her desk.
Before #MeToo, Alter viewed those experiences as “discreet happenings” instead of the “lifetime of male craziness” that presents itself on reflection.
“I always liked the work,” she says, explaining why she endured and eventually thrived among colleagues who treat her with respect. “It’s only now illegal to do these things,” she says. “In the old days, you had to roll with these things.”
The experiences, she says, made her harder and stronger, but also kinder, more generous with her time and more empathetic. “I like me better now than I ever have because of all the stuff.”
DORI WEST, 62
“I wasted a bunch of time thinking that I didn’t have much to offer the world beyond window dressing.”
Dori West, 62, remembers the day her sense of self began to shift. She was 10 years old, dressed up for a special occasion, when a relative she adored remarked on how shapely her legs looked. The intended compliment ushered in a lifetime of interactions with men that reinforced the notion that her primary value and power were rooted in her looks.
Navigating that space in the workplace led to complex interactions with male bosses who controlled her livelihood. Sometimes it worked to her benefit; other times it created the kinds of situations that made for a long night of sharing with close friends when the #MeToo movement took off.
“Often, at least for women of my generation, things went well beyond scrutiny,” she said. “And weirder still, men didn’t really ask. They took. And girls gave. Tolerating the comments, the squeeze, the rubbing up against, the come-on, the leering, the rape. And not telling.”
She continues: “I’m glad that women are shouting it from the rooftops. I wasted a bunch of time thinking that I didn’t have much to offer the world beyond window dressing. In a sense, it’s the sexual revolution redefined/turned on its head. Viva la revolution!”
LAURA JIMENEZ, 24
“I have my own trauma, and I have my mom’s trauma.”
Naiveté has always been a luxury Laura Jimenez cannot afford. No woman of color can, she says.
Coming of age as a young Latino woman, she got the manual on how to deal with predatory men at the same time as her training bra, she says.
Her mother, who had worked at restaurants, told her what to do when a man tries to rape her. It was “when,” not “if,” her mother assured her. Her mom had stories, like the day she fended off a supervisor who tried to touch her in the walk-in refrigerator.
Still, it came as a shock to Jimenez that so much harassment could be squeezed into 42 seconds, the amount of time it took to travel 520 feet from the ground floor to the observation deck of the Space Needle, where Jimenez worked as an elevator operator.
In the two years she worked there, from 2014 to 2016, earning about $14 an hour to pay for community college, Jimenez was squeezed, grabbed, pressed up against, pressured for her phone number, handed hotel room keys and propositioned not just hundreds of times, but thousands, she says.
She lost count of the men who touched her or tried to by sweeping back her long black hair from her breast under the pretext of trying to get a better look at the name tag pinned to her uniform.
She learned to spot danger: The men who were drinking. Small groups of men. An elevator full of men. The ones who got angry at the word “no.” Some even tried to get her fired.
It began to make sense that the longest-serving employees on the job were all men, she says.
“People mistake the smile of a woman in customer service,” she says. “Men take advantage of the fact that you have to be nice.”
Jimenez diverted and deflected their attention, or pretended not to hear. And, when nothing changed, she contacted United Here! Local 8, the union representing elevator operators and workers in the hospitality industry.
“I got to the point where I was on edge all the time. I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. I was so angry and getting more and more aggressive,” Jimenez says.
In April 2015, the company offered deescalation training, while the union successfully bargained for new conditions that allow operators to step away from work if something happens, and to call for help with a new security code specifically targeted at harassing and troublesome guests. New hires were given training on workers’ rights and how to deal with harassment, according to the union and the Space Needle’s management.
By the time all the changes took place, Jimenez had graduated from college and started a new career as a pastry chef in 2016.
“Because I’ve had all this trauma, I don’t like people hugging me,” she says.
Last year, a line cook at the Pike Place Market restaurant where she works came in for a hug on Valentine’s Day.
She rebuffed him with two hands against his chest, and told him she didn’t want to be hugged. When she rebuffed him a second time, he wrapped his hands around her neck and pressed his thumbs down on her trachea, she says.
“I hate you pastry bitches,” she says he told her. “You think you’re so much better than us.”
She pushed him back, and returned to work, shaken. It wasn’t until she got in the car with her boyfriend after work that she contacted her boss to report the incident. The managers investigated, but told her they couldn’t do anything because the cook denied it and there were no witnesses. She cried for days after that, she says.
The cook was eventually fired for other reasons, she says, and he now works in a city on the Eastside. She wouldn’t take a job in that city, she says, lest she run into him.
The assault may one day become a distant memory for Jimenez. But it still feels fresh, and momentous enough that when Valentine’s Day rolled around this year, her thoughts turned darkly to a new occasion: “The year anniversary of getting choked.”