Right out of college, I got a job as a Retail Sales Representative for the Warner Lambert Company. I sold Listerine, Listermint, Efferdent, Effergrip, Schick Razor Blades and Sinutabs. The products weren’t glamorous, but it was considered a very good job. There was about a 10,000 dollar difference between the package I would have gotten as a teacher, and this job, so I went with the better salary, bonuses, great benefits, and a company car.
I called on drug stores and grocery stores. I learned to talk to people and give a presentation without breaking a sweat. I learned to get people to like me, or at the very least, tolerate me. I learned that getting thrown out of a store was something I should not take personally. I learned to navigate western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio with no GPS, just a map and determination.
And I learned to put up with men making unwanted advances.
Of course, I’m thinking of this because of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, and whoever the next sex scandal will involve. When I looked on Facebook a while back and saw all the, “Me too’s,” from women who were sexually harassed one way or another, I wasn’t surprised. Then I added my name to the list.
I never really thought about it at the time, it was just part of being a woman in the 70’s.
I was 22 to 26 years old during my sales years of 1977 to 1981. With make up on, hair blown dry and dressed nicely, I was considered attractive. I’d dealt with boys coming on to me in college because college boys are just a vat of raging hormones. I thought it would be different once I became a professional, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Some men overtly flirted with me when I walked in their store, but I was fairly good at deflecting them and nothing ever came of it. I only ever dated one guy from one of my stores for about a month.
Then one night, an older, married man, who I didn’t find attractive at all, actually called me at home. I know I didn’t give him my number for any personal reason. I’m sure I gave it to him thinking it was for business.
He was the assistant manager of a grocery store on Market Street in Boardman, Ohio. He actually just straight out asked me to have sex with him. I was shocked and reminded him that he was married and he said, “I’m not asking you to marry me, just have sex.”
I needed to maintain a good relationship with him because it was my job to go into his store every few weeks and make sure it was well stocked with our products. So, I laughed and joked with him because I really didn’t know how else to handle it. There was no one to tell back then, and part of the problem was, like most of us, I was raised to believe that men were just being men when they propositioned you.
But a more consistent harasser was a married district manager of a chain of drug stores in Ohio. He was very nice and friendly and always took the time to listen to my Listerine presentation, then he’d say, “I’ll order as much Listerine as you want, if you’ll go to bed with me.”
Again, here was a guy who had the power to throw me out of his stores (and he was in charge of a lot of them) so I knew I had to stay on his good side. I’d playfully punch him in the arm and tell him how funny he was. He’d come back totally serious and say, “I’m not kidding.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m not going to do that.” And he’d say, “Well then I won’t buy your Listerine display.” And that would be that.
I used to take him to lunch, hoping he could be persuaded by kindness and friendship, but he always had the same answer, and so did I. But, I have to believe it must have worked for him sometime.
This man had two little girls who were both toddlers at that time. He never mentioned them, I only discovered that fact when I happened to drive past him as he was pushing their stroller down a street one day. I was totally disgusted that this married man with two young daughters would behave so horribly toward women. To this day, I remember his name.
I never even thought of telling my boss at Warner Lambert. Back then, companies were just starting to hire women in a sales capacity. I was the only woman in my region for years. I didn’t want to spoil it by acting like I couldn’t handle it.
And I wonder if the company would have done anything. They needed to maintain a good relationship with the stores too. That’s partly why they hired me. I was young, female, personable and, in addition to filling a quota, they probably figured an attractive female could generate sales.
It made me wonder if any other female sales representatives put up with harassment back then, so a couple days ago, I called a fellow sales woman I’m still friends with named Susan. She said she was never harassed, but Susan is not the kind of woman you mess with. She could fire back a snappy response that could shrink a man in seconds. I wasn’t quite that self-possessed.
So, today I did a little digging. I wondered if my harasser still worked for the same company. I looked him up. He doesn’t. He’s in his 60’s now and lives in Florida. His Linked in profile shows him on a boat, on a turquoise ocean under a beautiful Florida sun, with a self-satisfied expression on his face. He has his own business now, and I hesitate to give any more details because he’s not hard to find. With very little effort, not only did his Linked in profile come up, but so did his home address from VoterRecords.com.
I fantasized about outing him and wrecking whatever home life he may still have. But I would never do that to another woman. And besides, he was never aggressive with me, just repeatedly asked me to have sex, and always took no for an answer. He was always cordial to me and let me do my job, so was my experience so terrible? Not compared to some women, I’m sure.
So I decided to connect with him via linked in with this invitation:
I worked for Warner Lambert back in the 70’s. I called on your _______ area _______ stores. You always used to say you’d put up a Listerine display if I’d go to bed with you. I forgive you and would never out you, but would love a belated apology. I think you owe me that.
I wondered if he’d respond. I doubted he’d even remember me. But last night I was surprised by this response:
“Fran, I apologize for my behavior in _________. I’m embarrassed. I was very immature back then. I think I did put up displays for you though. Hope you are doing well in California.”
So, I guess there’s hope. At least he apologized — he could have just ignored me. Maybe the fact that he has daughters helped. (But I can tell you this: I KNOW he never put up any extra displays for me!)
And I don’t know what happened to him after I left. Maybe someone reported him. Maybe he was reprimanded. Maybe he changed his ways. Maybe he just grew up.
I was all ready to hate him for getting to live this comfortable, seemingly carefree, affluent life, after behaving badly, in upper management, for who knows how long, but I don’t.
I’m glad times have changed though, because if my daughter was going through the same thing today, I’d have no qualms about telling her to report it. Hollywood actors are not the only ones who get sexually harassed. Sales representatives in small towns deal with it too, as do many others. No one should have to put up with that crap when they’re just trying to do their job…and immaturity is no excuse.