Page 17


IN DECEMBER OF 1983, sexual harassment wrapped itself around Mary Dean like a dog clinging to a stranger’s leg. By spring of that same year she had walked away from her job. During the year after Mary Dean left Smith Produce, she spent hours staring into the mirror, blaming herself for what had happened to her. She quit driving. She couldn’t decide what to make for supper. She locked herself in a closet for long periods of time. “And my kids didn’t know who I was. And there were things that happened that I wasn’t there for them,” she said regretfully. “And I should have been.” For a short time she separated from her husband, Stephan. She didn’t speak with her father because, as she explained, “This is a shame so far as my people are concerned. Your name is all you have.” For a while she kept books for a carpet cleaning company. It went out of business. She had problems finding a job. “Every time I was confronted with a man interviewing me, I’d start to stutter.” She is now unemployed. Mary Dean’s experience matters not just because it is a sad story. It matters because Dean eventually sued Bill Bushell, Smith Produce Company, and Syndex Corporation in the first sexual harassment case to be tried in a state district court in Texas. She explained, “I told them I wanted $6 billion because I figure that’s what my soul is worth. That’s what they took.” In 1978, Dean had been hired by Bubba Smith, of Smith Produce, to work as a receptionist. Dean worked, in her own words, as “an order desk clerk.” Each morning, she supplied tomatoes, potatoes, pears, beans to Taco Bell, Nighthawk 6, Lakeway, sometimes Wendy’s, and to University of Texas dorms. With maybe twelve other employees, including truck drivers, the 5’4″, brown-haired woman worked out of a rat and bug infested garage connected to a tin building. The atmosphere encouraged salty-tongued comments. “If you were a female, you had to hold your ground. . . . You couldn’t back Amy Johnson’s column on feminist issues appears monthly in the Observer. 6 DECEMBER 4, 1987 down from anyone. You had to be just as vile and contemptible and vulgar as they were or else you would be eaten up and spit out. And not very many people would last a long time in that environment.” Dean said. She attributed her resilience to her ancestry: “My father is a Cherokee Indian, so I was gutsy to begin with.” At Smith Produce, Dean detected disorganization and began “structuring the office,” she explained. She instituted procedures for keeping track of invoices, registering postage, keeping the books. Often, she would work for 60 hours a week. Her dedication was recognized, and Smith Produce Company promoted Mary Dean to management. She worked upstairs with her boss Bill Bushell, a man she says resembles Jimmy Bakker: a 5’4″, thin, brownhaired man with a pot belly. Dean and Bushell complemented each other. They improved the efficiency of the company. She liked and respected him. Until December of ’83. That month, things changed. Dramatically. “It was a gradual progression of events,” Dean began, her voice shaky, her eyes averted. “And that’s the thing that’s important as far as I’m concerned. He didn’t come up to me one day and pinch me on the behind and go, ‘Hey, baby.’ He started in December of ’83. And he was very meticulous. He started one thing and then another and then another. If this didn’t work, which they didn’t, he just progressed, but he wasn’t going to stop. “Bill was always capable of being very nice,” she said. Her tone revealed little fondness. He had decided that the company would have a Christmas party. So together, Dean and Bushell went to Edison’s for holly, ribbons, and other decorations. As they shopped, Bushell commented that people would mistake them for a married couple. “He just went on and on about how much time we spent together and how compatible we were. And I just blew it off. But it bothered me because he had never really talked that way before,” she said. “It got worse from there.” As with any story, different versions are told. In the eventual lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, Bushell’s “version of the facts was totally different in spirit than hers,” according to David Fielding, attorney for Syndex Corporation, the owner of Smith Produce. “He genuinely thought he was falling in love with her.” During the trial, Bushell “admitted that there was some sexual conduct,” Fielding explained. “The question was whether it rose to the level of being unlawful sexual harassment.” Dean told how, when she was hugging other employees at Christmas time, Bushell grabbed her and asked other employees to leave the room so that he could be alone with her. According to Bill Malone, Bushell’s attorney \(who responded to questions since Bushell remember doing that.” She remembered when Bushell emerged from the bathroom, his pants unzipped, and called to her. When she demanded that he explain his behavior, Bushell reportedly replied, “Oh, I keep forgetting I’m not at home. That’s okay It’s only this big.” He held up his finger for comparison. Malone said Bushell denied that his pants were down; he didn’t know whether the comment was made. “He got worse. He just got worse,” Dean lamented, gazing off. “He would folloW me out to the street where the mailbox was. He would talk to me about blow jobs. He was very graphic. . . ” Syndex attorney Fielding said that Bushell claimed Dean has discussed oral sex with him. By February, Dean had started going to work at 4 a.m. so that she could leave by noon. She asked a woman at work to watch out for her. One Saturday, Bushell told her he wanted to meet with her. “And when I walked in that office in mid-February, the man had the drapes closed. He had the doors closed. He told me to shut the door and lock it, which was something that wasn’t done the door was always open,” she said. They discussed sales for awhile. Then, Bushell walked to the other side of the desk, sat across from Dean and said he was in love with her. “He was pretty graphic about what he wanted to do to me, what he was going to do to me,” she recalled, her gray eyes tearing. “The thing that scared me, I tried for a long time to figure it out, but his desk was clean. I mean he moved everything off his desk. I honestly think that he would have, that he would have. I really do. I can’t ever prove that. But I honestly swear to God that that was exactly what he had in mind. . . . He told me that we were going to initiate his office right then and there.” Sexual Harassment on Trial By Amy Johnson