Lawyer Melba Pearson was just weeks into her new role with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office when she encountered her first instance of work-related sexual harassment.
One day after class, Pearson and her colleagues were unwinding at a bar when the instructor of their training program walked into the venue and joined them.
The next day, he accosted Pearson before the entire class: "Isn’t it true that you like to wear Daisy Dukes?’?"
Pearson was "horrified." After class, she confronted the instructor but he brushed her off.
"He told me I shouldn’t be so sensitive and to get a sense of humor," she said.
Reporting him wasn’t an option after Pearson realized that he was "well-protected."
It’s an incident that still stings years later. But while she couldn’t change what happened to her, Pearson said she learned a lesson that she carries with her to this day.
"I felt it was my duty to protect and fight for (women)," she said. "I made sure to give back."
Pearson shared her story as part of a panel discussion, "Women in America Today," hosted Thursday at StageWorks Theater.
The four-woman group also included activist and attorney Erin Smith Aebel, Jennifer Yeagley, vice president for administrative & strategic operations for Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, and Fawn Germer, a best-selling author and motivational speaker and former journalist.
Each offered an audience of about 30 men and women their perspectives on issues women face, including health and social policies, running for public office, and gender bias.
Combatting the latter requires women — white women especially — to embrace intersectionality, Yeagley said.
"It is our obligation … to not prioritize our comfort over our sisters of color," she said. "We have a privilege that women of color don’t have. We have to be mindful of that and not be fragile … and listen more than we speak."
Hillary Clinton’s loss in last year’s general election is an example of what happens when women do not support each other, Germer said.
"You heard ‘I don’t like her’ or ‘It’s not time for a woman,’?" she said. "They didn’t know what they had to protect. Now we know what we have to protect."
Bridging the political divide amongst women may be difficult in the current climate, but one way to do that is to find common ground on an issue, Aebel said.
Founder of a the group Surly Feminists for the Revolution, Aebel said she’s been able to do this with her group’s initiative to fight child marriage.
It’s attracted the support of Republican women legislators who have sponsored a bill for the upcoming session that bans the practice.
It’s proof that connecting with people on the opposite side of the political sphere is possible when there are "good conversations" that help participants explore areas where they agree, Aebel said.
"I do think some people are changing their minds," she said.
Women must be unafraid to step out and stand up, said filmmaker and event organizer Renee Warmack.
"The first step is accepting that something has to change," she said. "You don’t have to know how it’s going to change, just have a clear vision."
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]