This is why we need feminism.
It is campaign season in Holyoke and as candidates open their mouths it becomes very apparent that one cannot swing a dead cat in this city without hitting a misogynist.
Hot on the heels of the long overdue sensitivity training that was scheduled in response to the notorious hot mics incident that exposed two seated councilors as a threat to their female counterparts we have Mike Franco stepping up to the plate with his accusation of the training being “forced and potentially iron-fisted indoctrination”, then calling “blasphemy” on Councilor Jossie Valentin’s use of the War Memorial building to host The Vagina Monologues. Is Franco is completely oblivious to the fact that some veterans do have vaginas or that there is rampant sexual abuse in the military that administration seems unwilling to address? It appears so. Has Franco actually seen a vagina in real life since becoming a “Men’s Rights Activist” a decade ago? My sources say no. Continuing in theme, now comes Kurt Bordas (a make-believe cop running against incumbent Jossie Valentin). Bordas sees this as an opportunity to make a complete fool of himself with his statement: “All I have to say in regards to this is we are looking past this and focusing on the well-being of the citizens of Ward 4 and discussing quality of life issues that we are faced with daily.” Yes, time to move past this, as sexual harassment has nothing to do with quality of life and it certainly would not be an issue of interest to anybody in Ward 4. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Oh, of course he supports Franco here as Bordas is also a woman-hater. Then both Franco and Bordas bring the concept of “free speech” into the conversation. This is very odd because both of these men are veterans so they must have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution at some point. 1A states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…” Nowhere in this drama has anyone’s free speech been infringed and nowhere in 1A does it say you should not be held accountable for your words. It is Mark Twain that once said: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” This is very good advice to the receiver, but it is my wish that people continue to ignore it only because it arms the rest of us sensible folks with the ability to know exactly who we should not be wasting our time on.
This certainly is not unique to Holyoke; these stories continue to be part of the Zeitgeist here in the USA: Rape culture, Gamergate, Bill Cosby, domestic violence in the NFL, male coaches as predators in women’s athletics, Columbia University mattress protest, women’s health issues being decided by male lawmakers or by corporations like Hobby Lobby instead of being made between the patient and a doctor, etc. The statistics for rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment are known to be vastly understated. One reason derives from the tradition of saying “boys will be boys,” as an excuse for inappropriate behavior by males. Young girls have been taught to keep silent and to overlook bad behavior by boys. Another is that victims frequently have the blame shifted onto them. Also it is often that the perpetrator is someone close to the victim so somewhere in there is a fear of hurting someone else, possibly the perpetrator himself – or – it is kids, friends or relatives to where the fear is spread. Of course, there is potential of retribution in many cases. Then, when history proves that there is often zero results with the reported cases; what is the reason to come forward if it is the belief that nothing positive could come of it anyhow? That said, it is extremely important for victims to stand up and be heard no matter the obstacles and it can take an incredible amount of bravery in order to do so – which brings us to this letter we received.
Angela Gerhard writes:
The “New Direction” for Holyoke?
My second day on the job for the O’Connell campaign had me at my first campaign meeting, where I met the marketing group, some volunteers and staff, and got insight into what the campaign was going to need from me for the job they hired me to do. Afterwards I went to dinner with Fran and two of his advisors at Max’s Tavern in Springfield in order to catch me up to speed. It gave me a chance to learn what the campaign plans and goals were, and gave me the some more of the much-desired background info I wanted into who Fran really is and what his run for mayor is all about.
It was a long but insightful evening. It was casual and a great way for me to meet “the guys”. His advisors are close friends of his he’s known for years, businessmen who Fran admires and trusts. The three of them all had a drink or two, I drank soda water. We talked about the current state of affairs in the city and we all contributed our thoughts and ideas as to what changes we’d like to see. We debated campaign strategy and talked about positioning, and whether or not it was ok to say one thing to get into office and then “pivot” once we got there, as one advisor suggested matter-of-factly. We discussed schools and we talked about the department of Economic Planning and Development. Quite a bit.
It was made clear that Fran’s goal is to more or less unofficially act as the Director of Planning if he reaches office. I’d heard him in earlier private conversations talk about wanting to have a highly-paid and qualified “right hand” that would take on much of what the day-to-day Mayoral duties would be. His idea is to give a part of his salary that person, because he “doesn’t need the money,” and this would free him up while someone else handles the day-to-day “minutiae” of running the city as he drums up business as the front man for Planning and Development.
As talk of specific employees in the department comes up here and there Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, a development specialist in the department, was mentioned. One of the two advisors asked who she was. Fran’s animated response:
“That Tessa, smart girl, but I can never hear half of what she’s saying because I can’t stop looking at her big tits!”
I was horrified. The guys chuckled. My reflexive response was of embarrassment, and as I put my head down, looking at my lap because I didn’t know what to say, I found myself angry that I felt that way. I consider myself a fairly outspoken person, and I think many would agree that’s a fair assessment. And here I was in the corner booth, wedged in between one man and another, unable to get up and exit the conversation and go home because we had all rode in one car down from West Springfield. I kept thinking “he doesn’t know me well enough to be saying things like that in front of me.” And we’re talking about a political campaign here, a future mayor…where was the professionalism?! It was baffling. We all know the frat-boy mentality exists and flourishes and boy’s clubs die hard, but we expect it to be hidden from view when we’re not a member of the club.
I’ve known Tessa as an acquaintance. I like her. I know she loves her job and works hard and takes pride in it. I have only heard great things about her work there, and what a benefit to the department she is. Her having to work with a man that demeans her in this way is in no circumstance remotely acceptable. Are we a city that will elect this into office? If this were any other circumstance, would a man who said this of a future employee ever be given the job? No, if only because he’d be a liability. The other day I finally reached out to Tessa about this, to let her know and ask if it were ok if I identify her when I speak out on this. I was and am sickened and saddened to know that this for her isn’t by any means an isolated incident, and that she’s been subject to continuous sexual harassment throughout her professional career. She feels defeated knowing that she’s worked so hard to establish herself in her new position over the past year, only to learn that her potential boss won’t be able to take her seriously because he can’t see beyond her anatomy.
Later on during dinner I caught a little something that Fran was saying to one of the guys while the other one is talking to me. A little of a “got her for the campaign // she’s a hell of a lot better to look at than this one,” referring to me and the other guy I was speaking with. I felt uncomfortable with the eyes on me from across the table, with the slow nodding in agreement. I wished I had caught more, but it wasn’t meant for me to hear. More disappointment and disgust.
After more time passed during the night, I inevitably said something to the effect of “You do know that you can’t say things like that, right? It’s really f*ed up, you just can’t do it.” My comment was was met with silence from the rest.
I was filled with conflict over working for someone who is immature, sexist, impulsive, and juvenile. It was my second day on the job. Out to dinner, I was already “one of the guys” and Fran felt free to be himself, crude “sense of humor” and all. Fran O’Connell, who has a good shot at winning this campaign, will essentially be the boss of the young woman he made that awful remark about. He’ll be in a position of power over many women who, you know, have tits. With all of the controversy that this city has had to endure, is this the “New Direction” we want to work towards?
I’ll be honest and admit I’m deeply ashamed that I spent time trying to rationalize it all and convince myself that in some alternate universe this type of behavior would be dismissible. I hoped that it was isolated remark, but I have since learned from several others’ accounts that this isn’t the case. I tried to chalk it up to a crass sense of humor. I struggled with it, a lot. I was someone who actively campaigned against a city councilor who made sexist remarks about another councilor and sought to have him removed from council. As time passed I started to pair up that experience I had with Fran and his “guys” with stories people told me of their own experience of him being offensive, inappropriate, hostile, and making them feel uncomfortable, and clear pattern started to emerge. When I read a quote from an acquaintance to the advisor I worked with that described Fran as “arrogant and undiplomatic….kind of like dealing with high school mentality,” he laughed it off and said it sounded pretty accurate and that he could be all of those things at times.
So I made a conscious decision to stick with the job, for various reasons. Part of which is that I compulsively research and gather information. I can’t help it. And research, in the end, was what the campaign wanted me to do. Being on the inside, working closely with one of his advisors, I would get one of the best views possible into what we were dealing with here. It didn’t take long to see that the work I brought to the campaign was going to be routinely dismissed and that any damage I could be doing by playing a supporting role was not much to worry about. Was I dismissed because I was a woman? I don’t know. Did they keep me on-board because as I was told more than once that I was “too dangerous” to let go? I did the work requested. My stint with the campaign was brief, and I was recently let go anyhow, being told that “policy and research work will be moving to a professional organization.” I figured I had 4-6 weeks left max, and I wasn’t terribly surprised, because I found myself butting heads with the advisor I was working with and continually frustrated with the lack of input from Fran and his unwillingness to heed advice in terms of introducing his platform. And no, I’m not bitter and resentful for being let go. No, I wasn’t working for the “competition” as a mole. If anything I feel some relief knowing I’m free of all of it, even if I am out of the much needed extra income.
Maybe Fran hasn’t displayed this sort of thing in the businesses he’s owned over the years. I honestly can’t say. But I do know that his marketing team will no doubt put together a well thought-out response to this, if they address it at all. All I can do is encourage the people who are private to share their experiences in a way they’re comfortable with to every Holyoke voter they know, and for people who can muster the courage, including other city employees, to call this type of behavior when they see it, and to do so publicly. It’s beyond difficult to do this because I know there will be backlash directed at me, that there will be collateral damage and relationships I value lost, but I’m really not good at sitting silent when there’s this much at stake.
So there you have it.
I have three daughters that I don’t want to grow up in a world where they should only be seen and not heard. Not putting people in power that treat women like this would be the new direction for us.
Since I first learned of Angela’s story a week ago it has been discussed among a few people and more stories have come to light. I do hope that these folks will come forward on record.