What Would Reagan Have Done? by
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With the turmoil of all the political, ideological, and character issues hitting us in this election, another factor is how candidates might affect people’s behavior outside the political sphere. Which brings me to a ghost of an election, or more accurately, the result of an election, that I haven’t entirely exorcised and that has been revisiting me this fall.

There were three other women ... and we stuck together. This was a good thing, because it turned out the men were angry--really angry.

It was 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s first term, and while many people were disappointed in having a Republican president, we weren’t surprised that he had beaten Jimmy Carter. That spring, I accepted a transfer to a new job, along with a few of my management colleagues, at a firm that my company had recently acquired. I moved from the San Francisco Peninsula to the East Bay, where I worked in a funky old building in Berkeley.

Many people working there came from other towns to the north and east. The professionals and scientists were mostly men, to be expected at the time. There were three other women in non-clerical positions besides me, and we stuck together. This was a good thing, because it turned out the men were angry–really angry. At the time I didn’t know why, but later learned that they felt they’d been cheated out of financial gains when the previous owner sold the firm to my company. As the only woman who had come over from the “big” company, I had a huge target on my back.

We women endured many indignities from frat-house antics to threats to our bodily integrity. If I needed to work weekends and evenings, to avoid being alone with one really bad actor, I had my boyfriend Hugh come with me as my bodyguard. He was 6’3″ tall, had size 13 feet, and a brown belt in full-contact karate. No one messed with him.

One weekday, in the middle of the morning, I walked out of my office down a hallway toward the restroom to find my way blocked by three men, two managers and a senior scientist. They moved toward me and I went back against a wall. One of the managers said, “Now that Reagan’s been elected, we can get you women out of here. We can’t wait to send you back to the kitchen where you belong.” For a split second I thought they were joking, but realized they were dead serious. They weren’t smiling.

Thinking back, that was when I’d had enough, and by the end of 1981 I’d found a new job back on the Peninsula. In the long term,  about a year later, those men got their comeuppance, being fired or demoted for a number of misdeeds.

In the current environment, I’ve been pondering some questions about this election ghost. Those men didn’t have to reference Ronald Reagan to get their point across. They easily could have just said they were going to send the women back to the kitchen. But they didn’t. Their willingness to say what they said had to do with “Now that Reagan’s been elected.” My idea is that they projected their anger and misogyny onto Reagan’s persona and conflated their emotions with his conservatism. These guys felt that Reagan was somehow giving them permission to engage in thug-like behavior.

So what would the real Ronald Reagan have thought and done? He might have been condescending toward women, but I find it hard to imagine him personally cornering a woman and threatening her. Alas, our current overlord not only gives people permission to act like thugs, he himself is a thug. I hope against hope that he is anomaly. We have seen people project all their anger and fear onto candidates, but there is a flip side. We also are capable of projecting positive emotions onto a candidate: community spirit, collaboration, kindness, hope.

One commentator I recently heard said that elections are more about the voters than the candidates. That makes me worry. But let’s hope. Hope that our candidates are worthy of our most positive emotions and hopes, and hope that they can shine some it back on our nation.

 

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    What a frightening but enlightening story, Marian. But you are right. Every horrible actor has crawled out from under a rock, thanks to our current leader. I don’t know how we’ll ever reign them all back in.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Scary story indeed, Marian, but I am sure it was far from unique as men felt re-impowered (or un-emasculated) during the Reagan Era. (I’n, of course, excluding gay men, as Reagan certainly was resistant to helping in the AIDS crisis.)

    With Trump, as you note, he is such a boorish thug that, as others have said, “He says the quiet parts out loud.” So we know all about his hatred — or fear — of powerful women, especially of color, and that his only use for women is to “grab them by the p*ssy.” It can be argued that it is better that his misogynistic views are so out there — let us hope that that helps get him voted out of office — but it is still sobering that he has such a dangerous following.

    That side, I really applaud you for your positive (or at least hopeful) views on our future.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wow, Marian, that must have been quite a time for you! I am certainly not a fan of Reagan, but I find it hard to believe that his election made sexism more acceptable. I think that, unlike the current occupant of the WH, Reagan would not have encouraged behavior like that. But it’s certainly an interesting ghost to bring back, so thanks for telling the story.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, that year was one of the worst in my life for a number of reasons. I agree that Reagan wouldn’t have encouraged the behavior, but it was very disturbing that these men used him to make to make their behavior OK. Of course now we have the primary exemplar in the White House.

  4. Horrid story Marian.
    Luckily our current president says no one respects women more than he does.
    And be assured, he’s the least racist person in the room.

  5. I think it was Father Ernesto Cardenal, of Nicaragua, who said, upon Reagan’s passing, “God have mercy on his soul,” and went on to describe the tens of thousands of deaths that could be attributed to his policies in Central America. Here in the USA, he didn’t kill tens of thousands but as you so well illustrated, he emboldened all the wrong forces. He also smashed the union movement, starting with firing the air traffic controllers (who were mostly Repubs who had endorsed him for Prez, and who just wanted to make their jobs, and thus the skies for all of us, safer). Trump is more vulgar and crude but I’m not sure Trump has caught up yet with the amount of damage Reagan inflicted on our collective well-being.
    Very engaging narrative. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. As Dale said, very engaging narrative, Mare. And yes, “emboldened” is precisely the right word for what the current president has done for the darker forces amongst us. I don’t know why I’m always so shocked by brutish behavior from supposedly intelligent people. That you were or even felt threatened by a scientist no less boggles my mind. I’m clearly naive; just look at history.

    • Marian says:

      Barb, the whole incident really caught me short at the time, given that these guys were professionals, not people working on an assembly line. Just goes to show how people can be overtaken by all sorts of bad emotions. The additional part of this incident was, in my exit interview, I called out my manager for knowing about the behavior in general (two of the guys worked for him) and doing nothing. He’d set a pretty sorry example himself. Sound familiar? Years later I ran into this manager at a professional conference. He’d been demoted and sent to another location, and he apologized for his behavior. Said the anger had taken over and he had been a total jerk. At least he learned something. Let’s now hope enough of our citizens have as well and can do the right thing.

      • As they say, it’s not what you think but how you act on what you think. We all have base emotions, including anger to some extent, but our better selves act responsibly, humanely, kindly. Then along comes you-know-who and the worst comes out in some people. Apologies go a long way as long as they’re sincere and proof that someone has learned a lesson and changed.

        This may sound silly in this context but at my 25th high school reunion my old boyfriend, without provocation, apologized for his treatment of me way back when. He had hurt me through and through, and his apology meant a lot to me, actually allowed healing to take place.

        I guess my point is that as a country, we need to heal. We can heal. Hopefully that time is upon us.

        • Marian says:

          Very true, Barb, about acting on what we think and how one person’s influence has mattered. Based on what happened with my old manager, I am cautiously optimistic that eventually the tide will turn. It will take a lot of time, effort, and pain, but it will be worth it.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, I’m sorry you went through that. You must have been terrified. Sadly, I think those men would have had an easier time projecting their anger onto Trump (even though I wasn’t a fan of Reagan). Didn’t Trump just tell those suburban housewives he wants to vote for him that he would fix the economy so their *husbands* could go back to work? Like you, I fear that even if we are lucky enough to vote Trump out, Trumpism will still be with us for a long time.

    • Marian says:

      I agree that Trump is so much more overt. I almost gagged at the “husbands” comment. My hope is with many women and young people. It’s a hard lesson we’ve learned that we can’t take progress for granted. I see years of vigilance ahead!

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