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The ‘Fairer Sex’? Not Always

Quote by Charlotte Bronte, “Jane Eyre.”
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent free will. — Charlotte Bronte, “Jane Eyre”
Illustration by Nicole Liao.

How Trusting My Female Bosses Just Because They Were Women Could Have Led to Disaster

Once upon a time, I was a 19-year-old girl in a big city. The big city was Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Harare, then a city of fewer than five million people, might not be considered large according to Western standards, but it was a big city for a village girl like me. My arrival there had been preceded by a young marriage gone wrong. I was already a mother at 19. In Harare, I stayed with my uncle and his family while searching for a job. After two months without luck, my uncle’s wife gave me an ultimatum: “Find a job in two weeks or go back to the village.” The prospect of village life daunted me, so I took the first job I could find, becoming an au pair to a family with three children, the youngest a 14-month-old girl.

I came of age during the height of the women’s movement, a global push for women’s empowerment and equality. I came to believe that compared to men, women were the better species. I believed in the goodness of women more than in the virtues of men.

My bosses were a working couple. The husband, who was dark like a moonless night, sported a potbelly like most rich, successful men in Zimbabwe. He was an engineer. He worked outside of Harare and often came home on weekends. The wife, a bookkeeper, was the embodiment of beauty according to African men’s standards. She was light-skinned, and when she walked, her body threatened to burst through her clothes. Their house, in a low-density section of Harare, was surrounded by a high wall and a huge metal gate. I spent six days behind that wall and was off on Sundays.

I had been conditioned to believe that only men exploited women and took advantage of them. My mother had never said anything about women doing the same.

Before long, I realized that the wife was cheating on her husband with a government minister. The man often came over with his brother, and the trio would indulge in alcoholic beverages. Sometimes, the wife asked me to move the mattress into the living room, where she and her boyfriend often spent their nights. This went on for a while, until one day the brother of the boyfriend started paying attention to me. His way of displaying interest was to offer me a $100 bill, which was a lot of money in Zimbabwe at the time. For someone like me, it was a fortune. Suspecting that the money had strings attached, I refused to take it.

My boss overheard this exchange and confronted me. “Are you crazy? This is your chance to make money and build a house for yourself in the village. That’s what clever women do because now that you are spoiled it’s difficult to find a husband.”

I took the money reluctantly. The brother, whose name I didn’t even know, asked me to meet him in the city center that weekend. My boss told me I could take that Saturday off. I spent the whole week agonizing over it. I realized that if I used the man’s money, I would effectively be consenting to being his mistress. On Saturday, I went to the meeting point and waited for the man as planned. He showed up driving a pickup truck. He smiled at me.

“Come, let’s go,” he said, opening the door.

I remained rooted to the spot. I opened my wallet and took out the hundred-dollar bill and stretched my hand out to him. “I can’t take your money. I came to give it back,” I said.

The smile left his face and his eyes widened. He told me to keep the money. I shook my head and kept my hand outstretched. All around us people came and went about their business. He looked around, then took the money. I turned and disappeared into the crowd.

When I got back to work that evening, my boss rained abuse on me for being stupid. She said I was going to die poor. “You are a stupid spoiled woman. This man has money. He would have looked after you. If they are not going to marry you, [you] might as well use their money.”

Our relationship deteriorated from that point on. Two weeks later, when her husband came home for the weekend, the wife asked me not to take my day off that Sunday. “We want to go to church, and Fungi always cries in church. I want you to stay home with her until we return.”

I told her I couldn’t do that because it was my day off.

“You really have to stay,” she insisted.

“But I am stuck behind these walls six days a week, so I really need my day off. Besides, God likes children.”

Our back-and-forth got to the point where the husband, who normally walked around silently throughout the house, suddenly found his voice. “Let the girl go! We can manage!”

This sent his wife into a rage. “Why are you taking her side? You must be in love with her!”

After I had finished cleaning the dinner dishes, I went to bed and left them yelling at each other. The woman screamed about her husband’s betrayal and the husband insisted that I had a right to have time off. The next morning at dawn, I packed my bag with its meager contents, slipped out of the house quietly, and left for good. I didn’t say goodbye or ask for my wages. I made a mental note of this incident, and used it as a learning experience. I had been conditioned to believe that only men exploited women and took advantage of them. My mother had never said anything about women doing the same.

When I came to America, I was a mature woman in my early thirties, but even a mature woman in a new place is a young woman in some ways. In a new country, everything around you is different and strange. I was working on my undergraduate degree at Fordham University and was hired to work as an intern at a grassroots women’s organization in Brooklyn. The women took several trips to Africa, where they hosted workshops on women’s empowerment. They also attended women’s empowerment sessions at the U.N. I got the opportunity to visit the U.N. and even attended some of the meetings, where the world’s movers and shakers met to solve problems, which included gender and equality issues. I was surprised, though, to find that these gender-equality meetings only related to women in Africa, that the view seemed to be that women in places like America and the rest of the Western world were already empowered.

One day, the women from the office invited me to an overnight party at one of their houses in Brooklyn. “It’s going to be fun!” one of them said to me.

“Aren’t all parties supposed to be fun?” I asked.

“This one is special, because it will be a party for just women,” she said. “We will have fun together. Whatever you want to eat or drink. There is a jacuzzi; we will play in the water. If you want a massage or something, we women will spoil each other.”

A party invitation from a boss or someone with influence can be hard to turn down, but being stuck with a bunch of women in their early-to-middle 60s who promised to exhibit their naked bodies didn’t sound fun to me. I said nothing and was a no-show at the party. The following week at the office, one of the women smacked my rear and asked, “How come you didn’t come on Saturday? We had so much fun!”

I mumbled some excuse, but was rather put off by the slap on my behind. I recalled private jokes I had overheard here and there between the women and was glad that I had listened to my instincts and not gone to the party. I made a mental note that I would never do anything social with these women. When I read the story in the news about Mel B, the former Spice Girl who had a relationship with her children’s German nanny for seven years, it brought back memories of these incidents involving female bosses. Mel B accused her husband, Stephen Belafonte, of cheating on her with the nanny, impregnating her, and paying for her to have an abortion. The nanny hit back, recounting how she had first met the celebrity husband-and-wife team and how they had offered her a “dream job.” Eventually, the nanny and Mel became lovers, and later, Belafonte joined in and they became a threesome. I could not help but think that this girl was a victim in this sordid affair and that her bosses took advantage of her—just like the other women had tried to take advantage of me.

I grew up being nurtured by my mother and the other women in our village, so I had always viewed women as mentors, not as predators. But a girl in a big city alone—and away from her family and all that is familiar—is vulnerable.

If I had acted differently in some of my own experiences, it could have had a negative impact on my life. What’s even more disturbing to me is that both incidents involved women. It’s natural for most women to be less guarded around other women than around men, but it’s an instinct I have gradually been forced to unlearn. I now believe that when it comes to character, women and men are truly equal.

This article originally appeared in A Women’s Thing’s Memory issue.