Da Nang, Vietnam

I spent last week in Da Nang, Vietnam at the APEC Summit surrounded by powerful, engaging, remarkable women. Several are CEOs of major companies in their countries of origin. Others run their family’s conglomerates with holdings in multiple industries spanning the Asian Pacific region. Many of the women are delegates representing their countries. They are from Brunei, Peru, Malaysia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and China, to name a few. Other women are their countries leaders: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan.

Still others, like me, are here as accompanying partners. Not slouchers are we either. Helen, an Episcopalian minister, leads one of the largest churches in New Zealand. Zoe is shaping social policy for the government in Adelaide, Australia. Charmaine owns multiple boutiques. We are young and old, public officials and private citizens, religious and secular, Western and Eastern, with easy camaraderie and respect for one another.

Who amongst us, I wondered, is a #metoo?

By day, I took every opportunity to listen to their stories. I was inspired by their visions, talents, fortitude, and ambition. At night, I caught up on the news from America. This entailed reading as many of the latest #metoo revelations of sexual harassment as I could psychologically manage to internalize and tolerate. This endeavor was not a soporific for a good night’s rest. Yet it felt, and continues to feel, essential to read about and honor each woman’s unique account of denigration and abuse. This project I have set for myself is interminable. The deluge of #metoos continues to flood across the U.S. and throughout the world. Unlike the deluge of rain from Typhoon Danphry in Vietnam, it does not let up. 

When professional women with skills, education, and social standing can be so easily victimized, what might millions of women without resources or recourse silently endure?

In Da Nang, I welcomed each morning with new conversations and encounters. We did not discuss the undercurrent of threat, fear, anger, and despair that has damaged so many women for so many years. Who amongst us, I wondered, is a #metoo? While Sheryl Sandberg, upbeat and composed as always, highlighted the success of female entrepreneurship, and Prime Minister Ardern focused on the urgency of climate change, I thought about the seismic shift that needs to happen to make the world safer for my two young adult daughters.

What sexual climate will the next generation live and work in, I wonder?

How do I raise them to be bold, powerful leaders like the ones on the conference dais and also protect them from the very real threats of predation that are likely to be created anew? I want to empower them to forge ahead, plunge into the world of their choosing undaunted by histories past. Yet there is a nagging whisper, enforced at the end of each day as I circle back to my nightly bedtime stories of sexual assault, abuse, and trauma. Self-respect does not guarantee the respect of others. And as the #metoo campaign has so forcefully demonstrated, when professional women with skills, education, and social standing can be so easily victimized, what might millions of women without resources or recourse silently endure?

These thoughts circle round as I reflect on my own history of demeaning, inappropriate sexual encounters. “Climate change is lapping at our feet” stated Prime Minister Ardern. What sexual climate will the next generation live and work in, I wonder?

Esther Altmann, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City, and the Director of Pastoral Education at Yeshivat Maharat.

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