Seven Sonoma Valley Women Speak Out at the Beginning of a Global, Cultural Paradigm Shift
Words Laura Zimmerman & Sydnie Kohara
Images Steven Krause
Lynne Joiner knows exactly why she got her first job in journalism. She was, well, pretty. And brash. (Still is.)
“The bureau chief (for Newsweek in LA) was a friend of a friend of my parents. He gave me a chance because I was a good-looking young woman, and he likes good-looking young women. But it wasn’t a romantic thing. He gave me a break, and I did very well with it.”
Joiner grew up in Hollywood. Her father was the powerful president of the Writer’s Guild of America. He let his teenage daughter play against the men in his Sunday tennis matches because she was that good.
“My mother used to drive me nuts because she’d say, ‘Don’t beat the boys. They won’t like it.’”
It was a message typical of the Mad Men era, but one that Joiner ignored when she says then-Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty called her parents’ home, wanting to meet this cute freelance photographer covering his campaign.
“And I just turned him down cold. I was very young, but I had enough self-esteem and confidence and I knew that I didn’t want anything to do with this creepy old man.”
She’s been that brutally honest her entire journalistic career. When she didn’t get assigned the hard-hitting stories as a television reporter, she pitched her own, like a series on California winemakers after the legendary blind tasting in Paris in 1976. And while she pushed for better stories, she also pushed for change.
“When I went to the news director and asked what the maternity policy was, he took the cigar out of his mouth and said, ‘Our what? Our what?’ They had no policy for women, because there weren’t that many women.”
Joiner has worked all over the world as a freelance journalist and consultant and says she’s never been taken advantage of in her travels.
“I think it has to do with a certain aura or attitude, and I think that’s one thing women have to learn and learn early. Don’t mess with me.”
That’s what worries Joiner, that an article like this won’t be seen by the people who need it most, young kids and mothers looking for the inner strength to stand up to intimidation. While she may not feel she is part of the #MeToo conversation (“I don’t like hashtag crap.”), she recognizes its invaluable message.
“You’re not alone and you don’t have to take it, and you don’t have to do what the men tell you to do. And if somebody comes out in his bathrobe, for God’s sake, get the hell out of there.”
She is an attorney by trade, with side gigs involving a food truck and a City Council. Thirty-three-year-old Rachel Hundley has already been featured in the Washington Post as the young mayor of Sonoma, and she’s also faced a remarkable level of both physical and verbal abuse.
“It’s a hard concept for men to wrap their heads around. Even those who describe themselves as feminists can’t understand what it’s like for a woman, to be just living your life and men feel like they have the freedom to reach out and grab you. Its not right.”
The first time, she was in high school, a member of the marching band, headed for the snack bar when an older male student aggressively groped her body as he walked by.
“I wasn’t sure what to do. I ran over to a male classmate. He was upset too. We went to the cops at the game. They couldn’t find the guy, but at least they took it seriously.”
During law school in New York, she was out with fellow students one evening. A friend’s boyfriend got physical with her, hands where they didn’t belong. She pushed back, and then quickly left. An evening and a friendship spoiled.
At her first law firm, fewer than 3 percent of the equity partners were female. In her litigation group, there were none. The protocols seemed stacked again her.
“The system was never based on a meritocracy. I thought it was absurd having to go to these social events and pretend some guy’s jokes were funny, in order to build a relationship with him, so that he would assign you work.”
At one social event in the Hamptons, she again faced off with a groper. This time she was quicker.
“I was angry and I threw my drink at him. I just can’t imagine that entitlement.”
When she headed west, politics appealed. Although easily elected in her first Sonoma campaign, she faced hostility coming from what seemed like remnants of an old boys club.
“The only people who showed up to yell at me were older males. I had one gentleman who not only direct heated criticism toward me during public comments, but continued to yell at me from his seat and disrupt the meetings.”
Her hope lies in the next generation.
“In interacting with our high school students, they seem a lot more aware of the autonomy of one another. I have hope that young women today will feel much safer to stand up and talk openly about these things.”
She marches into the room, smiling, checking her notes and wrapping up a call with her mentee. “Ok I’ll be there Tuesday, love you.”
Kathy Witkowicki in a nutshell: competent, multitasking and powerful. But it wasn’t always so.
Her mother suffered from a brain tumor followed by chronic illness, and her father worked three jobs. Kathy had to help at home and earn her own way in the world, working restaurant jobs, dabbling in modeling, then becoming a prestigious emergency room nurse. Always, her bosses were male and, too often, she was silent about their actions: “I would never have reported it. Isn’t that crazy? There was a certain fear of these people. I was young. Which is one of the reasons I didn’t have the confidence or the faith in myself to do anything about it.”
The ER was high stress, long hours, late nights and doctors who were treated like gods, including one she’ll never forget.
“He was totally inappropriate in how he would hug me way too long. I don’t know why he hugged me in the first place. Or things he would say that he wanted to do with me … to me.”
Witkowicki says there was no official way to report this, but she somehow knew it wasn’t worth it anyway.
“Maybe I could have gone to the HR department at the hospital, but what were the consequences? Would I get transferred out of the ER? Because he certainly wasn’t going to be. I think that is what a lot of us do. You stay silent and quiet and ignore it and shove it under the rug.”
Looking back, Witkowicki believes putting up with the constant disrespect stayed with her well into adulthood.
“Yes, It affected my confidence. Then my confidence was even more affected by my powerlessness to do something about it.”
It wasn’t until her first marriage crumbled and she was suddenly a single mom with four young children that she found her true power.
“I became like a warrior, on my own with a family, sole parent, a job, a household, a community, and that is what helped me to develop my strength.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder she is crystal clear on the importance of protecting and empowering others. As the founder of the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, Witkowicki provided reliable adult mentors for thousands of Sonoma Valley kids. Speaking up is the key.
“If there is anything that makes hair on the back of your neck stand up that happens to you in your workplace, you need to talk to somebody about it and come up with a plan to stop that from happening. Period.”
“Iwas roofied here in Sonoma.”
Heather Wolf does not get emotional, does not hesitate when she tells this story, one of several harrowing experiences in her life. Thirteen years ago she was living in London and had returned to the Valley for a visit. Someone spiked her drink while she was waiting for friends at a local bar.
“I remember them basically dragging me out of the bar saying, ‘We’ll take care of her, we’ll get her home.’ I remember being put in a truck and when I woke up in the morning, I had thrown up, I had wet myself and I had definitely been raped. I had no idea who it was.” She didn’t call police only because she had to catch a plane to London that morning.
Wolf is 47 and has accomplished much: project manager for a large construction company in Chicago, CEO and lead designer for a luxury textile company, designer of high-end home interiors. Yet for every impressive career milestone, Wolf has a harassment story to accompany it.
The married manufacturer from Italy who tried to shove his tongue down her throat. Potential investors who admit at the end of the meeting they only want a date. Being mistaken for a call girl when she has a drink in the lobby bar. That last one doesn’t happen anymore, thanks to Norman, a New York City bartender.
“He’d say, ‘Come join me at the bar for dinnertime.’ Sure enough, within half an hour the whole bar is lined with women who are in town for business and he’s introducing us all, and he kept the slimy guys away from us.”
There are many “Normans” here, Wolf says, wonderful men in the Valley who are lifelong friends and who’ve always had her back. She thinks younger men who’ve grown up with powerful moms also grow up with a healthier perspective on how they see and treat women. As for the few “bad seeds” out there, her advice to young women is just as direct as her stories.
“Stand up for yourself. It’s only going to stay bad if you don’t speak up. And your self-esteem is going to get pummeled. But if you speak up, more than likely guys are going to respect that.”
Claudia Mendoza-Carruth is energetic and outspoken about community causes, cultural equality and youth. But she has kept silent about this story for decades.
“What happened to me happened in another country, in another life. I packed it up, locked it away and tossed out the key.”
Growing up happily in Bogota, Colombia, her life was radically changed at age 10. Her father drowned, leaving her, her sister and mother to fend for themselves.
“I had no men around me to protect me or give me advice or lead by example.”
Mendoza-Carruth believes this made her an easy target for a family patriarch and successful businessman with a dark side.
“Unfortunately, the most painful thing for me is when it comes from family. There was an uncle who, after my father died, his calling was to help us, to be my father figure. He was obsessed with me. It was a sexual abuse pattern that continued for decades.“
Family, Mendoza-Carruth fears, is too often a place where young women face intimidation, abuse and shame, made worse by the need to preserve the family, to put on a good front.
“His wife was my mother’s best friend, and I could not go nuclear on this. Family abuse is a very serious problem for many people. It crosses class, money and status.”
Thanks to the other women now speaking up, she is too. The uncomfortable memories tumble out.
“He asked me to help him with a business conference. Then in the middle of the night he is suddenly in my bed. I ran to the general manager and he gave me a separate room.”
Even a wife nearby did not dissuade him.
“Staying at the home one time, there he was in the bathroom, exposing himself with the light on, making sure I could see, even with his wife right there.”
Recently, she learned another niece was also a victim of the uncle. Claudia snapped. That was it. She confronted him in an email. No more secrets.
“You can leave a job. With family there is never an exit. Family is family and unless you want to part ways with everybody, you have so much to lose.”
Claudia draws strength from her career, her community and a marriage that provides the safety and empowerment missing from her childhood. Her advice is straightforward and aimed at parents.
“Be vigilant about the interactions between adult family members with your sons and daughters. Empower your children. Encourage them to speak up if something is not right.”
Hollywood was her backyard growing up, and Marcy Smothers navigated it with apparent ease, getting a gig on the set of an iconic TV show while she was still in college.
“I was lucky enough to become a protégé for Charles Durbin, the director of MASH, so I spent the last year of film school at UCLA on the set of MASH.”
Her natural moxie and determination propelled her forward to jobs in casting and later TV production. In Hollywood she lucked out in finding what she calls a series of impeccable male mentors. But considering her childhood, things could have gone a very different way.
“My mother was a drug addict married to a drug addict—my home life was miserable.”
The constant turmoil, and an abusive stepfather, meant she had to work her way through college on her own. A ski shop in the valley became her haven, with a boss who seemed like the father figure she always longed for.
“My boss said, ‘Hey a friend of mine is doing a photo shoot. You might be perfect for it.’ At this time of my life, I guess I felt flattered by it. I went by myself, to a man’s house in Chatsworth. When I got there he said, ‘You might be perfect, put on a bathing suit.’”
Which she did, and then the photographer laid it out. This was no valley girl beach thing; this was a soft porn male magazine shoot, and her boss knew it.
“That was the creepy thing. That is what disturbed me later. This was a person that I wanted so desperately to be a father figure. It was a great disappointment.”
She returned to work and stayed silent. She needed the job. And she simply invoked the skill set she had learned at home.
“I am a master compartmentalizer, partly because of growing up with addiction and alcohol in the house. Whatever gift I was given helped me to be a taskmaster and look straight down the path, take care of everyone else, keep going and get it done.”
All these years later, watching the #MeToo movement unfold, Smothers has unique insights into what goes wrong in the world of Hollywood and fame.
“High-powered people in Hollywood are surrounded by sycophants. When you surround yourself with yes men and yes women, it’s a slippery slope. A really good friend tells you what you are doing wrong, not just what you are doing right. That’s what I think.”
Smothers is also definite about calling out the men in her career who truly did it right, helping her succeed, and never crossing any lines that made her uncomfortable.
And she sees progress as she watches her own daughter’s bold actions, forging a career in New York and empowered to speak truth to any situation she faces.
“I am proud of that. I would say to other young women, speak your truth, trust your truth, and know your truth. Be genuine, be grateful, be proud, be kind. Don’t be afraid of the bullies.”
But, she adds, “Easier said than done.”
Even as a young girl, Heidi Porch knew she wanted be a pilot. She also knew it wouldn’t be easy in a career dominated by men. But her first #MeToo moment took her by surprise. She was studying for what’s known as an Airframe and Powerplant license, supervised by a veteran mechanic. Porch considered him her mentor. And a friend. Until he wasn’t.
“One day he says, ‘OK, Heidi, unless we have an affair I’m not going to help you.’”
That was 40 years ago. Today, Porch flies wide-body jets millions of miles all over the world, responsible for the safety of thousands of passengers. It’s been a rewarding career, but not an easy path. She remembers her first year as a pilot.
“I was in the cockpit and the captain showed up, took one look at me, dropped his flight bag and said, ‘I don’t know what I hate most, female pilots, new hires, or Yankees.’ And I started laughing. But he was not joking.”
She got angry, but there was no recourse then. She was on probation and could be let go for anything.
Layovers could be a problem, too. If a pilot said to come up to his hotel room for a debriefing, she called the flight attendants to make sure they were coming, too.
Porch says every female pilot she knows has experienced some sort of harassment. And scary situations, too, like the captain who asked a female pilot to join the Mile High Club while the plane flew, empty of passengers, on autopilot at 31,000 feet. So Porch devised a way to protect herself.
“If I’m ever pressed into a bad situation or something, I’m going to pull that (voice recorder) circuit breaker and say, ‘Let’s go talk to the chief pilot. I’ve got it on record.’”
It’s easier now, Porch says. Airlines promote pilots by seniority, so if you pass the training, you automatically advance. While there are still instances of bad behavior, Porch insists it’s not nearly as bad.
“So many men that I work with, they have daughters, they have children. They want them to have respect in the workplace.”
And remember that captain who treated Porch with disdain her first year as a pilot? Years later, she’s an instructor evaluating him for a check ride. Did he remember her?
“Not initially, but he did by the end. I said, ‘You know, Captain, you probably don’t remember me, but we flew together when I was on probation. I just want to thank you for making it such a memorable experience.’”
Porch forgives, but never forgets, including the men who’ve made a positive difference in her life.
“For all of the a-holes that I’ve encountered, men hate them, too. They’re just miserable people. I’ve been fortunate in having some wonderful mentors who just bent over backward to help me in my career. I don’t think they’re given the credit they’re due.”