by Maddy Costa
We all knew* that she was earning less than him
for doing exactly the same job
with the same experience
except we didn’t because no one talked about it
in the absence of conversation we assumed they were earning the same.
I know I did
until I bumped into her on the tube
still furious about it.
She left on principle.
He still works there.
We all knew his starting salary was higher than her finishing salary
except we didn’t because she didn’t tell anyone
at least, not anyone who could have challenged it.
She also knew he had asked his male colleagues what they were earning
but not the women
because who wants a woman’s salary?
He sure didn’t want my salary.
We all knew they didn’t pay on time
or at all
not from checking with each other
just from marking the invoices late, unpaid.
We carried on working for them anyway
and didn’t say anything
at least, not out in public where anyone could hear
for fear they’d never have us work for them again.
What other choice did we have?
We all knew that they made promises
of certain work
or as close to certain as it gets in uncertain times
but we kept it secret, not to show off.
And when they broke those promises
(we’d kept it secret, remember)
we could have said something about it
but we didn’t
because we want to be there when the promises are handed out again
We all knew that there was a clause in the contract
demanding they pay this percentage
should they exceed this earning
except we didn’t
and they didn’t
because the contract wasn’t sent to them in advance.
So it came as a surprise, but also
not a surprise at all.
Sure they complained
and brought in lawyers
but they didn’t tell anyone
– OK, they told me in the pub –
but I’m not telling anyone.
It’s not my story to tell.
We all knew that he couldn’t be trusted around women
Actually, I’ve no idea what he did.
I can imagine, of course.
We can all imagine.
We all knew that he coudn’t be trusted around women
because after it happened to A she told B, and B warned C, and C took care of D
a circle of gossip**, spreading wider and wider
but still so many women outside of it.
who didn’t know
and don’t know
because nobody told them
who won’t know
until they encounter it too.
Or maybe it won’t happen to them.
Maybe they will just live in fear of it happening
without knowing what it is
or who to be afraid of.
We all knew that he had been
and she had been
except what we saw from the outside was a better future, hope
and so we didn’t know
we didn’t know at all.
And the people who had been manipulated, coerced, lied to
didn’t talk about it
even as their faces caved in with the pressure of it
even as they carried the pain of it in their bones
because they felt so ashamed
ashamed they let it happen
sure it hadn’t happened
to anyone but them.
And because no one talked about it
and because no one knew
and because it looked like future hope
she got that job
and he got that job
and the power structure stayed intact
and they carried on as always
but it’s OK
because we all knew.
We all knew that we were complicit
if not in the actions
then in the silence
the protection of authority.
And even when we really knew
we carried on not talking about it
at least, not above a whisper
not out in public
not naming names
or naming deeds
and it’s not because
we want them to continue.
It’s that we don’t know how
we don’t know what
we don’t know where
it will end.
* “The reason I’m so angry is I’m so shocked that we’d got to this point and we’d all accepted it. We all knew about it! We. All. Knew.” What exactly did she know a month ago? “I knew that pretty much every single woman I know had suffered sexual harassment in her life. I knew that, and I’d just accepted that. I’m hardwired to accept it. I’m a feminist, and when I talk about it, it shocks me. But I had literally accepted it, like I accept that we have a class system. I’d accepted it like I accept that there are homeless people. And that’s just bizarre – but it’s what we’ve done. And then suddenly someone speaks out, and you start to think, why are we as a society accepting of this situation?” Vicky Featherstone, The Guardian, 4 November 2018
** Hatred of gossip is hatred of women talking to each other – it is generally women who do this work of love. When we gossip, we share vital information: this one is sad, this one is in love, this one is dangerous. In most families, news of birth, death, failure and achievement travels through the women. Communities of gossips nurse each other through the degradations that partners, bosses and families inflict on us. Without the love of gossips, most of us would be either dead or dead inside. Hannah Black, Tank Magazine, Spring 2017