Assorted news stories over the past few weeks have made me think again about the ridiculous loss of potential we are forfeiting each year in this country by our treatment of women and girls.

Years ago, after hearing Anita Hill describe the sexual harassment she had endured from her boss Clarence Thomas, my dad called to apologize to me. Several years earlier he had advised my younger sister to ignore the harassment of her supervisor at the steel mill from which he had retired. He told her that it was normal for supervisors to give new recruits a hard time and complaining was not in her best interest. I had told her to report the harassment to the personnel office. She eventually left her job.

I had forgotten the incident and our conflicting advice, but he hadn’t. He was close to tears as he told me how sorry he was that he didn’t have any idea of the difference gender made in the workplace, how pervasive it was, and how frightening it was for my sister to have her supervisor showing up at her door.

At that time, I think we all thought that after hearing Anita Hill testify, men would wake up to the fact that they couldn’t protect their daughters from other men’s repulsive actions and would set about making sure that behavior was no longer tolerated in any workplace. We were excited thinking of the vast amount of creativity and productivity that would be unleashed when women could actually concentrate on their work. How naïve we were.

Generally, for me, I haven’t spent much time thinking about the sexism I’ve experienced over the years. After all, fish don’t think about the water they swim in.

However, the last few weeks of news has brought it to my consciousness. It made me remember things like having my advisor tell others I was a B-plus student but had great legs, or having the director of the agency for which I worked ask in front of other employees what I was wearing under my dress.

With that remembering has come a lot of sadness about what women and girls go through to prove our worth. Just in the last few weeks:

• Jacinda Arden, the newly — and unanimously — elected Labour Party leader in New Zealand, was asked by a radio host whether she planned to have a baby while in office.

• Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Texas, aimed chauvinistic and threatening comments at Sen. Susan Collins and other female members of Congress for suggesting it might be worth actually holding hearings on a bill that proposed to change the health care law.

• Female employees in a Portland deli were subjected to a homophobic tirade based on their gender.

• And, closer to home, Waterville city Councilor Lauren Lessing was subjected to months of bullying tactics and harassment at council meetings, with little effort by either the male councilors or the mayor to put an end to it. She was just the latest recipient of such tactics aimed at shutting down female councilors who have the nerve to speak up.

I’m sure the men who witness these actions but stay silent don’t think their female partners and daughters are at risk of being the targets of harassing behavior like that.

But at what point are they going to stand up and say, “You guys are making us look bad?” If they think they can protect their daughters or the women they love from this kind of treatment that women experience daily, they are sadly mistaken.

Harassing behavior is merely a point along the continuum of a spectrum of socially sanctioned male aggression and coercive behavior. Domestic violence resulting in death is the end point. Controlling women by belittling them, abusing them physically and sexually, has very little consequence, especially now when the president brags about how he does it.

Gender-based harassment begins early. Little girls are called “bossy.” Older girls and women are called “bossy,” “lesbian,” and worse, all in an attempt to keep us in line.

Every nine seconds in this country a woman is assaulted or beaten. One in three has been a victim of physical brutality by an intimate partner. It’s not something that just happens to poor women. Just ask the middle-class men who have come to me to ask how they can help their daughters get out of an abusive relationship. Or ask the female partners of rich sports figures, doctors, lawyers, and political and religious leaders.

Women and girls are considered “less than.” Just ask the governor who vetoed and the legislators who sustained that veto of a bill that would have eliminated the discriminatory practice that keeps women from earning what men do for the same job.

Is that what you fathers and future fathers want for your daughters? To be considered less worthy than, and paid less than, your sons? For your daughters to be seen as objects rather than people? To become punchlines — or worse, punching bags — for men who can’t stand the idea that women are their equals?

Changing that thinking and building potential starts early. It starts by telling girls they can be anything they want but it doesn’t end there. It has to include enough men actually taking action to make sure that the path to becoming whatever their daughters want to be, isn’t interrupted by men who can’t handle that idea. We will all be so much better off solving the challenges we face today if we begin unleashing the full potential we have suppressed. We don’t have time to lose.

Karen Heck is a resident and former mayor of Waterville.


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