It's the late '90s. I'm in my 30s, on the tenure-track in an English Department in the southeast. Waiting on my lunch heating up in the faculty lounge microwave, I overhear my mentor inviting a new colleague to have dinner with him and his wife at their home. I've worked in the department a year, and this couple has never invited me over for dinner. But I am female. And single. The new colleague is a married man.
I'm lonely in my couple-centric community, and I'm hurt by this slight. But given how my male colleagues flirt with me, I guess I don't blame this one's wife for not wanting to invite me into their home, although it hadn't occurred to me the men would talk about me to their wives. Upon reflection, I surmise they either did so unconsciously—a new young woman on the tenure track still rare at that time, something worth noting over dinner—and, worse, perhaps their tone betrayed to the women who knew them better than they knew themselves how they were behaving toward me.
Fast forward five years. I am not yet 40 and dating someone who lives on the Outer Banks, a two-plus-hour drive each way, which I make every weekend. One day, mid-week, I'm in the same faculty lounge talking to another of my senior colleagues, who mentions he and his wife are going to the Outer Banks for the weekend. I ask to ride along with them, thinking it will be a nice change to have company for the trip. I am surprised when my colleague—a friend, I thought—does not readily agree. I watch hesitation and resistance cross his face.
"Sorry," he says after a squirmy pause. "My wife won't go for it." I'm hurt and puzzled. I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything. Awkward silence. "She calls you my 'work girlfriend,'" he finally offers in explanation.
"Whyyyyyy does she call me that?" I ask. He mumbles incoherently, to which I respond, "Well, wouldn't it be a good idea then for you to suggest giving me a ride to see my boyfriend?"
He claims that wouldn't help. Perhaps he doesn't want his wife to know I'm seeing someone. Maybe he likes that she—a career woman herself and much more successful (and probably a lot smarter) than he—is threatened by me. I am reminded of that earlier non-invitation to dinner by the other senior colleague and his wife. I determine not to participate anymore in any illusory competition with these men's wives. And I will discourage future flirtation.
But I don't. Not yet. I'm from the Deep South. Older men have flirted with me since I barely filled out a bra. I learned early: women get along better with men they work with if they hide any negative reaction to unwanted behavior. Even better, if they play along.
I admit to being flattered when these senior colleagues like me. I know I'm absolutely not going to get involved with married men generally, and I'm not attracted to either of these men specifically, so to me, their flirtation is harmless. I admit I don't give much consideration to their wives. Since these women have made no effort to befriend me, I hardly think about them. But I also fail to recognize that the kind of attention I'm getting from their husbands means my colleagues are either not taking me seriously as a fellow scholar, or their behavior is a means—conscious or not—of objectifying and thereby undermining me. Whatever the case, I will come to realize their flirtation shows as little respect for me as it does for their wives.
Fast forward two years. I am at a department party with a man I have gotten very serious with, and he is talking with the first colleague's wife. My scientist boyfriend mentions to her how he has not yet read my newest academic book because he is still preparing by reading the literary works I examine in it. But he's almost done with his reading list, including having already completed all of the Faulkner. "You read Faulkner for her?" she asks. The following Monday, my colleague tells me his wife has asked him to invite the two of us to their home for dinner.
Many years later, I'm late-middle-aged. I shake my head at my younger self who said nothing to the contrary as the first of these two men called himself Lancelot (to my implicit Guinevere). Indeed, I use his apparent fantasy when needed to prompt him into some kind of action on behalf of a cause we share within department politics: "Oh, Laaaancelot," I say in my best mock sing-song, damsel in distress voice, stepping into his office before a meeting. But in truth, while this supposed mentor is supportive and reassuring when I vent to him about department matters, he typically leaves me to be the spokesperson for our common concerns. Although he's one of the most senior and accomplished in the department, he rarely speaks up at meetings—except one time, when a woman is hired at a higher salary than his, and he suddenly finds his voice to complain about unfair disparities among disciplines. I am the person in the department who occasionally slays dragons, but mostly I tilt at windbags.
Eventually, I have younger female colleagues, one of whom buys me a Wonder Woman canvas bookbag, explaining as I open the gift, "I wanted you to know I appreciate your willingness to speak out and act rather than just gather at a bar and complain." She turns my thinking away from flawed knights and toward the possibility of an army of Amazons. The women we've hired in over the last several years are proving themselves formidable scholars and courageous colleagues. I realize it's much more flattering to be appreciated by one of them than considered cool for not calling out a married man for sexist remarks.
As for the wannabe work boyfriend, the end of our collegiality comes when he sits silent through a meeting at which a misogynistic department chair spins a situation to my disadvantage and humiliation. This same colleague had once noticed my discomfort at a party when a bitter ex arrived, and, though he had been on his way out, quietly said he would hang out as long as I needed him there. But on this day, a new chair in town, he does not back up my version of events. I reach a point where I cannot speak further in my own defense without risking tears, but throughout the assault, I glare pointedly at this man who once had my back, hoping he will share his knowledge of the facts. The coward never even looks my way.
So now, here we are in the era of the #MeToo Movement. I'm a senior member of the department, the misogynistic chair long gone, my former male colleagues retired. If not, would the two who once flirted with me be getting nervous, as women call out male colleagues for such behavior, rebuking what these men considered harmless? I listen in admiration as a young woman in my department recounts publicly chastising several of our male colleagues who embarrassed her with sexual innuendo in front of students at a local bar one afternoon. The next time one of them appeared in her office, she stopped him as soon as she realized he was going to chat with her as though the encounter had never happened. "Excuse me for interrupting, but did I miss your apology?" she asked.
"You go, girl," I say, awed.
I'm 60 now, with career honors and published books exceeding those of the men in my Department—past and present. I can't remember the last time a colleague flirted with me, and I'm fine with that. I don't miss it a bit. But I hear stories from younger female colleagues about other lecherous men in our department, and I watch for beads of sweat to appear on these men's foreheads. The women know I'm their advocate, if needed. I've invited them to dinner.