One beautiful September morning, as I was driving to work, crossing the Hudson River on the Tappanzee Bridge, I caught sight of the Twin Towers off to the south, shining in the sunlight. I should be down there at that seminar, I thought to myself.
In August, I had signed up for a breakfast seminar scheduled for this morning in New York City, touted as, “How to Manage your Investment Portfolio: an Update for Busy Community Bankers.” Among my many responsibilities as chief financial officer at Provident Bank, one was to manage the bank’s investments. This seminar sounded like a perfect review. I called and reserved a spot and taped the postcard invitation onto the side of my computer screen as a reminder: 8 AM, September 11, 2001, World Trade Center, Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of one of the towers.
Three weeks went by, and my workload piled up. One of my best people quit for another job that did not require so much overtime. The HR department was slow to find a replacement, and I was working till 8 or 9 o’clock most evenings. The date for the seminar approached. I would have to get up by 5 AM to catch a train into the city for a breakfast meeting. Then I’d have to come back to my office and catch up on mounds of work. The seminar looked less and less appealing. I called to cancel, tossing the invitation into my wastebasket.
As I drove into work that day, I thought sorry I’m missing it, but I just can’t be two places at the same time. A few minutes later, crowded into the break room with a crowd of staff and coworkers, I stood in front of a TV, watching the towers collapse. About sixty of us huddled around the white Formica tables and turquoise plastic chairs, in a room that generally held about a dozen people. Many of us knew people who worked in those buildings. Marissa, my accounting clerk, ran from the room crying, “My sister!”
Suddenly panicked, I rushed to my desk and called my daughters, worried until I could hear their voices. Loretta was safe. She worked evenings, and was still in bed in her apartment in Queens. “Huh? What are you talking about?” She flipped on her TV.
A tide of co-workers ran to their desks, the same thoughts in their minds. The circuits jammed; I didn’t get through to my older daughter, who lived and worked in Manhattan, for nearly an hour. Many of us didn’t reach loved ones till much later in the day. All day long, we’d wander in and out of that break room, watching the endless loop of planes crashing into the second tower and each tower, in turn, pancaking into rubble.
When I returned home across the bridge that evening, a pillar of smoke rose from the south. Over the next few weeks, I mourned with all Americans the senseless tragedies of that day.
But as time has passed, and as I’ve tried to comprehend what had happened that sunny morning, I keep remembering the TV news clips that showed Afghan people, many of them women, whooping with a high decibel trill and dancing in the streets with glee. They had almost gotten me, I kept thinking. What had I ever done to them? What had any of the people in those buildings done to them? Aside from the violence of the terrorists that day, though, I kept thinking about what life was like for those women of the Middle East.
Afghan cities had been almost as modern as Istanbul only a few decades before. Afghan women had gone to school and become doctors and teachers and accountants. Before the revolution in Iran and the decades of civil war in Afghanistan, many women in those countries had even stopped wearing the traditional headscarf. Now they were shrouded from head to toe in black shapeless robes. Swept up in a tide of Islamic fundamentalist reform, they were forbidden to leave their homes without a brother or husband to look after them. They were not allowed to work, even if widowed. They could be stoned to death for even the suspicion of adultery or anything that would “dishonor” the men of their family. And as wars have raged through Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Africa, women have continued to bear the brunt of the suffering, often kidnapped and raped with impunity by Taliban and ISIS extremists.
How did their society devolve so precipitously? Why did it devolve in this way? It seemed they had chosen to make women the scapegoats for all the problems the people of their society faced. As the months have gone by, the question in my mind has changed to, is it happening here? TV and newspaper pundits debate how best to protect our U. S. cities from further terrorism; I ponder how we might protect U. S. women from fundamentalist slavery.
Women in the West have come a long way since the Civil Rights Legislation of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Could we lose the rights we’ve gained over the past fifty years? And might fundamentalist religion be behind the loss? Might it already be behind some of our problems?
Although women today make up 46.3% of the U. S. labor force, and 50.6% of management, professional and related occupations, we make up only 15.4% of Fortune 500 corporate officers. And we make up only 6.7% of the top earners at those companies. For many years we’ve made up a large percentage of the recipients of MBA and LLD degrees. It’s been over fifty years since the enactment of equal employment legislation. Still, women hold only about 14.8% of Fortune 500 company board seats, and often it is one lonely woman working with eight or ten men, where she is pressured to fit in, unable to truly express herself. Of the companies that make up the top 1,000 U. S. companies, only 22 have a female CEO.
Even more distressing, however, is the rise of violence toward women. Rape is epidemic. Yet our society elected an admitted sexual molester. Achievements in women’s civil rights, such as the right to control when or if to become pregnant, are threatened. Insurance policies cover Viagra—an unimportant extra, but many do not cover women’s birth control—often a necessity. The right-leaning Supreme Court–many of its members influenced by conservative religious beliefs–is poised to reverse Roe v. Wade.
There are many lessons to be learned from the violence and suffering on and after September 11, 2001. Of course a primary lesson is an awareness of the need to protect ourselves from violent terrorists. I have learned how fragile women’s rights are. With knowledge comes power. Studying history can help us make better choices, hopefully to protect the rights women have gained in the past century and to further women’s road to equality.