They share their stories one by one, sitting side by side around a coffee table crowded with cookies and mugs of tea.
Ann Geracimos, 82, remembers the boyfriend she dated in the early 1960s who once lost his temper during an argument and slapped her across the face. Robin Blum, 62, recalls her 30th birthday, when a male co-worker handed her an envelope with a pair of racy underpants tucked inside. Ming Crusey, 71, describes how stunned she was when a clergy member groped her in church — in the presence of her young children. Stanice Anderson, 67, says her life was forever changed at 14 years old, when three young men brutally beat and raped her.
These are memories from long ago. But in the midst of a burgeoning national conversation about misogyny, sexual harassment and assault, the five women gathered in the sunny living room of 76-year-old Mary Procter’s stately rowhousein Southeast Washington have recently found themselves revisiting their past experiences.
They belong to an older generation of women, which suggests — according to common stereotypes and a stream of headlines about the #MeToo movement — that they should fall on the more antiquated side of a generational divide that some say has emerged in the response to the recent spate of sexual assault allegations.
But their reflections on the societal influences of their youth are complex, and their views on the current cultural moment don’t fit neatly into preconceived generalizations.
“Women in the old days, in the really old days, they didn’t trust each other,” Procter says. “One of the things that didn’t use to happen is women sharing with each other. And now, they are.”
“We didn’t speak up when somebody received unwanted advances,” Blum says, remembering her time as a college student at the University of Maryland in the 1970s. “If something happened, your friends would say, ‘What do you expect when you dress like that?’ or ‘Well, what were you doing in his room?’ ”
“I didn’t tell anybody I was raped until I was 34,” says Anderson, a District native and the daughter of a former D.C. Council member. “I felt like I was damaged goods.” The trauma triggered a years-long struggle with heroin addiction, she says: “I relived it over and over in nightmares.”
Crusey, who immigrated to the United States from China with her family when she was 10, remembers how empowered she felt as a staunchly feminist college student in California, how certain she was then that sexual violence, workplace harassment and gender discrimination would soon be relegated to the past.
“It catches my breath that we’re having this kind of conversation in 2018, when we thought all this would be done,” she says, adding that she feels inspired by the new burst of attention.“I’m hearing all these stories, and I’m thinking: I have so much to learn.”
The women around her are nodding.
As the #MeToo movement has swelledin breadth and momentum, inevitable fault lines have emerged, with women of all ages debating the boundaries and definitions of sexual harassment and assault.
Certain cases — for instance, an anonymous woman’s controversial allegation of sexual misconduct against actor and comedian Aziz Ansari — have underscored the apparent differences between older feminists and their younger counterparts. Was Ansari’s date a victim of assault? Or was it just an awkward encounter that she could have ended at any time?
Some pointed to age as a factor when 92-year-old British actress Angela Lansbury said in an interview that women have historically “gone out of their way to make themselves attractive” and so “must sometimes take blame” for sexual harassment or assault. (Lansbury later issued a statement clarifying that there is “no excuse whatsoever” for men to harm women, and added that she was “troubled by how quickly and brutishly some have taken my comments out of context and attempted to blame my generation, my age, or my mindset, without having read the entirety of what I said.”)
French movie star Catherine Deneuve similarly found herself facing a backlash led by younger feminists after the 74-year-old actress signed an open letter arguing that the #MeToo movement had gone too far.“Rape is a crime, but insistent or clumsy flirting is not an offense,” the letter said.
But disagreement about these issues exists well outside generational lines, and casting the debate as an age-driven disagreement is itself a problem, says author and anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite, 65.
“I’m super-resistant to the idea of framing this as, ‘Yet again older feminists argue with younger feminists,’ ” she says. “We are never going to learn from each other as long as we are in our age silos.”
Deborah Felton, executive director of the Fuller Village senior-living community in Milton, Mass., recently organized a presentation about sexual harassment for residents. It was prompted by two recent complaints, she says, both filed by younger family members who spoke out on behalf of the senior women who experienced the harassment.
Felton thinks it’s often harder for older people to feel confident speaking out about harassment or assault — but the #MeToo movement is changing that.
“Since this has been in the news, it has definitely allowed women to put a name to what they were experiencing,” she says.
More than 50 residents attended the discussion led by Jewish Family and Children’s Service social worker Robin Krawczyk, who agreed that older generations have had a longer time to be socialized to accept harassment. “However, my experience in leading discussions and workshops with older adults makes it clear to me that I cannot make assumptions or generalizations around generational differences,” she said in an email.
It’s also wrong to assume that older people can’t evolve, says Applewhite, the activist author.
“I learned the word ‘intersectionality’ five years ago,” she says. “I didn’t know that word. I didn’t grow up with it. But to participate in the important issues of our day, it’s incumbent on older people to stay current and learn what’s out there. You don’t have to agree with it, but if you want to be part of it, you need to be an informed and helpful contributor and watch and listen to the winds of change, and feel empathy for what different people are going through.”
The women in Procter’s home — all neighbors and fellow members of the Capitol Hill Village community, a nonprofit that supports seniors as they age in their homes — have convened at a reporter’s invitation. But for months, they have been watching and listening to the #MeToo movement, and their thoughts have been changing, too.
Geracimos, a former feature writer for the Washington Times and an ex-wife of former Democratic senator Max Baucus of Montana, has been thinking lately about her adult son and the way parents talk to boys — or don’t — about questions of consent. “What are we saying to them? How are we talking to them about any of this?” she asks. “It never occurred to me to talk to him about how to behave around women.”
When Blum recounts her story about the co-worker who gave her the unwanted lingerie, she emphasizes that he was harmless. “Just one of the guys,” she says. At the time, she laughed it off, and she doesn’t regret handling it that way. “A man would be absolutely nuts to try to do something like that today,” she says.
It makes her wonder about how such a vast and nuanced range of violations should be handled. “Where does it cross a line to where you bring it up and say, ‘This guy should be fired?’ ”
Crusey can think of one time when she wishes she had said something — that day many years ago when a clergyman touched her during a visit to a “very respectable” church.
“I had my little kids with me, and I thought, you know, ‘I really don’t want to make that fuss,’ ” she says. “And now I have to work out why I didn’t want to make a fuss.”
“Confrontation is hard,” Anderson says.
Crusey hadn’t thought about the incident for a long time. If it weren’t for the larger conversation unfolding all around them, she says, it might not have come to mind again.
“But now I look back and I say, why didn’t I just turn around and make a big deal out of it?” she says.
“And would you now?”Procter asks.
“Now?” Crusey pauses, then nods emphatically. “Yes, I would.”