Office Romance in the #MeToo Era — Is It Worth the Risk?

Office romance at Zodiac News Service office party. 1970s, San Francisco, CA. Nancy Selvin, Steve Selvin, Barbara Falconer, Jon Newhall, Barbara Falconer, Barbara Newhall photo

Office romance: Friends Nancy and Steve Selvin joined Jon and me at a Zodiac News Service office party. Barbara Newhall photo

Today’s #MeToo movement was foreshadowed twenty-seven years ago when the Senate confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas was nearly derailed by accusations of sexual harassment from a former colleague, Anita Hill. Thomas denied the accusations, the Senate confirmed his appointment, and Thomas remains on the bench to this day.

Unlike today’s #MeToo movement, set off by allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas story eventually blew over — but not before inspiring heated discussions of office romance and sexual harassment in households across the country, including mine.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, Oct. 20, 1991

As last weekend’s [Senate hearings] unfolded, Jon looked at me sheepishly and asked, “Was I guilty of sexual harassment?”

He was thinking, and I was thinking, of those early, tumultuous days of our friendship, when we worked together on something called Zodiac News Service in a small, ink-stained, second-floor office on San Francisco’s Howard Street.

He was the boss. I was the assistant. We were in love.

“Jon,” I laughed. “If anyone was guilty of sexual harassment, it would be me.”’

I had, after all, applied for the assistant’s job. And I had applied for it knowing full well that it wasn’t simply the job I was interested in. It was also Jon.

Plotting an Office Romance

He was my kind of guy. He was bright. He was handsome. He had the courage to borrow some money, hire some people, rent an office and go into business for himself. I liked that.

It was my hope that if Jon and I worked together, day in and day out, that we would one day become friends. A solid friendship, I thought, might lead to a solid, long-lasting romance.

I was right.

Here were, years later, driving a station wagon through the Gold Country toward Yosemite Valley, two little kids in the back seat, the two of us plastered to the car radio, taking in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings.

We weren’t the only American couple to find ourselves passionately involved in the issues being raised that day.

“We talked and talked,” says a co-worker who had spent the weekend with her husband in front of the television set. “It was actually very romantic.”

Romantic because my colleague’s husband, like mine, shared her intense interest in the hearings. And, like mine, her husband responded to the hearings as she did. He believed Anita Hill.

“It made me realize I made the right decision when I married him,” my friend smiled.,

Those had been my sentiments last weekend. Jon understood. He sympathized. He had no use for men who bullied women.

The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Fall-Out

Not every woman is lucky enough to have a husband or a man friend who understands. No doubt many women have been feeling pretty alienated this past week as they have come to the realization that their men just don’t get the sexual harassment issue.

“Hey, what’s the big deal?” they are hearing. “He didn’t touch her. He didn’t fire her. If she didn’t like it, why didn’t she just quit?”

This is trivialization of the problem, of course, and these days, hell hath no fury like that of a woman trivialized.

A male co-worker predicts that the anger falling out of the Hill-Thomas hearings is affecting male-female relationships everywhere, and with long-lasting results. “Watch,” he says. “Watch the birthrate plummet next June.”

And so, I can’t come out against office romance. My own worked out very nicely.

One could even argue that Jon and I benefitted from working together to so long and so hard, meeting deadlines, debating stories, sitting together at the end of the day, gossiping and teasing as we folded our newsletters and

Office romance in the '70s. The logo of the 1970s alternative news service, Zodiac News Service, founded by Jon Newhall. This sign hung in Zodiac's office on Howard Street, San Francisco. Photo by Barbara Newhall

This sign hung in Zodiac’s office in San Francisco. Photo by Barbara Newhall

stuffed them into envelopes, watching the stack of envelopes grow from small, tidy piles in the early says to large mounds that slid off our desks onto the inky floor as our subscriber list grew.

One might say, because we spent all that time working together, keeping a news service and working relationship afloat, that by the time Jon and I got married, we were already married. We knew how to keep a marriage afloat.

Still, office romances are risky, very risky, and I can’t recommend them to everyone, especially not to those who aren’t able to get a job elsewhere if things get sticky. An on-the-job romance can be distracting. It can interfere with your work. Feelings can get hurt. In many situations, it can get you fired.

And, of course, there is the now very high-profile risk that one’s overtures will be perceived as sexual harassment.

But still, I think that for many Americans, the risk is worth taking. For many of us, the workplace has taken the place of the church social and the neighborhood picnic.

When an Office Romance Is Worth the Risk

It is a place to meet people, to observe them in a variety of situations, to pick up on what co-workers think of the object of one’s affection and, finally, to submit the relationship to the reality test of day-in-and-day-out contact.

Dating at the office is a less than perfect arrangement. But for many singles who are now feeling the terrible isolation I was experiencing back in the ’70s, finding romance at the water cooler is a whole lot safer than finding it in a singles bar or personals column.

Now that Anita Hill has gotten men and women talking to each other in the workplace – about harassment, about women’s issues, about fairness, about mutual respect – perhaps the workplace is now a better place than ever for men and women to be together, talk together, get to know each other and, every once in a while, fall in love with each other.

© 1991 The Oakland Tribune, republished by permission

More about Jon at “One Broken Ankle, and Two Lives Grind to a Halt.”  More about the dating scene at “He Never Called Me Back. Why?”



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