An aspiring police officer objectified while doing exercises with her male peers. An attorney called a “little girl” by the opposition in court. A news anchor who gets photos of men’s genitals sent to her Facebook page.
In light of national campaigns against sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace, The Bee asked prominent Fresno women about their personal experiences. Their answers were alarming, but not surprising, given similar stories recently outed everywhere from Hollywood to the Legislature about abusive men in power.
Several of the women featured in this story expressed an initial reluctance to speak out, citing fear of retaliation, but said the cause is too important to stay quiet.
Here’s what they had to say.
Margaret Mims, Fresno County sheriff
Working nearly 40 years in a male-dominated field, Mims says she could “write a book” about the sexism she’s dealt with.
When she was training in the police academy, an instructor made an inappropriate comment about how she and the one other woman in her group “jiggled” when they did jumping jacks alongside their male colleagues. “It was out loud in front of the whole class,” she said.
In 1980, when Mims became the first female police officer for the city of Kerman, another officer questioned her parenting skills. “He asked why I wasn’t home taking care of my son,” Mims recalled. “What are you doing working?”
Because of Mims, Kerman police badges went from saying “policeman” to “police officer.”
The 63-year-old Mims, who has been Fresno County sheriff for more than a decade, realized she was overworking herself a long time ago to prove that she could do as well as – or better than – her male co-workers. She said she stopped trying to prove herself in 1998 when she was promoted to lieutenant.
“There’s an assumption that men can already do the job, and women have to prove themselves. And people watch to see if we’re going to make it. I always felt I had to write more reports, do more work, answer more calls,” Mims said. “I carried this burden for a long time and then I realized I’m trained, I’m capable. I know what I’m doing. If someone has a problem with me doing a job because I’m a woman, that’s their burden to carry – not mine.”
Lisa Smittcamp, Fresno County District Attorney
Smittcamp’s pivotal moment came in 1997 when she was a 28-year-old prosecutor in Madera County, going head-to-head with an older, male defense attorney in court.
“He had been asking to continue this case on and on for different reasons that I felt were not ethical, so I put my foot down and objected,” she said. “On the record, he said to the judge, ‘I will not be told how to practice law by this little girl.’ ”
Smittcamp also remembers that when she was working for a private law firm, she was not allowed on cases representing big agricultural or trucking companies because of her gender. Elected as Fresno’s district attorney in 2015, she says she still gets backhanded compliments from men about her “strong personality” that she says are too offensive to publish.
“When women are assertive, it translates differently than when men are. It’s almost like people expect men to be strong and women to be weak,” she said. “If a man is opinionated and prepared, he is revered in his profession. If a woman is those same things, often times she’s perceived as bitchy.”
Smittcamp says she knows many women who are victims of sexual assault.
“There are still a lot of people – a lot of men – who believe that they can bring up a woman’s sexuality, the way she looks, the way she dresses,” she said. “It’s one of those things where you can say you would respond a certain way, but when it actually happens, it hits you so fast. It’s so surreal, you don’t respond the way you think that you would.”
Esmeralda Soria, Fresno City Council president
When asked if she has experienced sexism, Soria, Fresno’s only female member of the city council, laughed. “Absolutely,” she said. “Every single day.”
Soria, the city council president, said she is routinely faced with comments on her appearance, a fascination with her dating life and being labeled “the bitch of city hall” or “the angry Latina” – all things she says her male colleagues do not have to deal with.
“I don’t see men being told they look beautiful today. I don’t see them having to give those uncomfortable hugs – where they hold you a little longer,” she said. “It’s become normalized because that’s just the environment we’re in. But it’s not acceptable.”
Soria recalls running for office for the first time in 2014 and being asked to provide proof of her education and credentials, “but when it’s a man, they don’t even question it,” she said. She monitors how much emotion she shows when talking about issues she’s passionate about because she’s been judged for it.
“I have to be careful about how I present myself,” she said.
Soria, 35, said she’s unsurprised by the stories of sexual assault, abuse and harassment that have come to light in recent months, but has struggled with talking about it.
“How do you build the courage to talk about it? Especially if you live in an area that’s conservative, and you see the type of pushback you get on certain issues,” she said. “For me that’s been a struggle. You want to be open about it because other women leaders are looking up to you, but I don’t even know how to respond. I just kind of shut down or try to change the conversation because it makes me uncomfortable.”
Sarah Reyes, former member of the State Assembly
A state law that requires workplace sexual harassment training is in effect thanks to Reyes. In 2004, the former California Assembly member authored the legislation following allegations against then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Fast forward to 2018 and we’re having the same damn conversation,” Reyes said. “The more things change, the more things stay the same.”
Reyes, director of communications for the California Endowment in Fresno, said that then and now, harassers would claim not to know that their actions were wrong – so she aimed to fix that.
“People just didn’t get it. They didn’t get that the things they were doing were inappropriate, and I didn’t get what they didn’t understand,” she said. “The first thing you hear, even today, is, ‘Well, I didn’t know it was harassment.’ So I said let’s require them to be trained so that they can’t have that excuse.”
Reyes, 56, said she hopes the national conversation extends beyond sexual harassment and focuses on how men in the workplace abuse their power, reflecting on her own experiences as a Latina politician from 1998 to 2004.
“The Legislature is a boys’ club and that’s what I walked into. The people who are supposed to be there to protect people from the wrongs were – and some still are – guilty of doing the wrong thing,” she said. “I have been fortunate in my life that I have not been harassed sexually, but have I been in situations where men have been very clear as to who holds the power and the future of my career? Definitely. And those are not great positions to be in.”
Reyes is also hopeful there will be a shift in the call to action – to focus on the responsibility of the accused, not the victims.
“The good ol’ boys need to stop and take a good hard look at themselves and ask why it is still happening,” she said. “When you are given power and you are given responsibility, you ought to take it seriously and you ought to be able to know how to handle yourself. Or you shouldn’t be in that position.”
Carole Goldsmith, president of Fresno City College
Goldsmith thought as an openly gay woman that she would be protected from some of the sexual harassment stories that have been plaguing the country. She was wrong.
“Women are sexualized in our society. You put two women together, it becomes hypersexualized,” she said. “That boys’ locker room banter, I’ve been privy to because men think it’s OK to share with me what they share with other men – to say inappropriate things to me or ask really inappropriate questions because they’re intrigued.”
She added, “Notice I say boy talk – not men talk. I think most men of honor don’t talk like that.”
Goldsmith, 52, was president of West Hills College Coalinga before being named president of Fresno City College in 2016. During her decades of work in education, she has been on the losing end of “dismissive power plays” by men.
“I was disagreeing with a colleague about a topic, and I was told that I should just smile and support it. Just sit there and look pretty is basically what he told me,” she said. “Are you kidding me?”
She said it’s time to end what she calls “a culture of silence,” and recalls having nowhere to go when she sought advice as a young educator in need.
“When I was young in my career, I faced extreme pressure and discrimination, and when I would ask people what to do, they would say, ‘Just try to get along, don’t ruffle any feathers.’ It was never, ‘Stand up for yourself,’ ” she said. “That’s not OK. Only until we put it in the light can we make a difference.”
Graciela Moreno, TV reporter and anchor
Moreno has been on Fresno local television for more than 20 years. Like all journalists, her reporting changed with the advancement of technology and social media.
But it’s also made her more vulnerable to sexual advances from strangers. She used to get letters in the mail commenting on her appearance. Now, she gets pictures of viewers’ penises in her Facebook inbox.
“You want to respond and say, ‘You’re disgusting.’ You want to be mean to them because you’ve had to look at these photos, but I just act like it never happened and block them,” Moreno said. “Who does that? At what point does it get in their brains that they have that kind of power – to say something inappropriate to you?”
Moreno, 45, a news anchor and reporter at ABC 30, remembers early on in her career when a prominent businessman made her an indecent proposal that left her shaken.
The day after meeting him at an event, the man tracked down her number and called her to say he could help advance her career. He could get her a job at a TV station in a bigger market like Los Angeles. All she had to do was go on a date with him.
“I remember my heart was racing. I didn’t know what to say. My immediate desire was to hang up the phone, but all I kept thinking about was this is somebody everyone in town knows. He does business with our station; he has my boss’ ear,” she said.
Moreno said her response to that situation haunted her for years. She politely declined. She lied and said she had a boyfriend. Now, she says, she would respond differently, and she’s proud of the national spotlight on women who have found the courage to put their foot down in similar situations.
“Why did I lie to protect his feelings when he obviously doesn’t care about mine?” she said. “I was so angry at myself. I should’ve put him in his place. I should’ve let him know he can’t speak to me in that way, but I remember feeling like he did hold some power over me.”
Cherella Nicholson, advocate
Nicholson said she’s dealt with sexual harassment at a number of jobs, but in 2015, it caused her to quit.
She was working as a consultant on a short-term project, and the advances from a male colleague were relentless no matter how many times she declined.
“He hit on me countless times. He would comment on my appearance or flat-out tell me he was attracted to me even though he was married. He offered me money and alcohol. It was very inappropriate,” she said.
Nicholson, 32, told his supervisor before she removed herself from the project, and says that’s the closest she ever got to formally complaining about one of those situations.
“We’re socialized to just sweep it under the rug and ignore it and do your job. For me, it meant I had to walk away,” she said. “The interesting part is, if I’m honest with myself, I was thinking more about how it would affect him than me. I didn’t want to get him in trouble. I don’t know why.”
Nicholson is an advocate for education, disenfranchised communities and other causes regarding equity. She currently works as a liaison for Fresno Unified trustee Cal Johnson, and ran to represent State Center Community College District in 2016.
“I asked myself how did I get to this place – to be so vocal on so many issues but silent on this,” she said. “On a national level, it’s heightened our consciousness. Time’s up for me, too. We have to stop normalizing this thing.”
Nicholson has dealt with catcalls and comments on her body since she was 12 years old. As a woman of color, it’s even worse, she said.
“No one has come out and said, ‘Cherella, because you’re a black woman, I’m doing this.’ But our culture has hypersexualized black women on TV and in images. Just with the history of this country and slavery, we are frequently seen as sex objects,” she said. “We can’t ignore how race and gender play into this.”
Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Fresno Unified School Board president
Like many women, Jonasson Rosas has gotten an unwanted hug – the kind “where they put their hand down and caress the top of your butt as if that’s OK.” She’s been told she should be a model and “pose for the magazines” during a business meeting. But sometimes it’s the comments that are more subtle that sting the most.
Her accomplishments have sometimes been attributed to her husband, city councilman Luis Chavez, who used to serve on the Fresno Unified school board that she now oversees – not to her degrees or experience.
“He obviously taught me everything I know,” Jonasson Rosas joked, saying that while Chavez is her biggest supporter, he does not deal with the same comments.
Jonasson Rosas, 33, community engagement director for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, recalls a jarring conversation with a male colleague in 2009, when she was just getting her start working for the city of Fresno.
“He starts questioning my salary – why I make so much; why he was making less than me. It was very telling,” she said. “Essentially it was, why did I deserve this and not him? But I had studied, I had worked hard to make a name for myself and I didn’t understand how I somehow was taking opportunities from him. How is that my fault?”
Her experiences over the years leave her wondering if she’s being treated differently because of her gender, and have created a pressure to assert herself more.
“More than anything, what has gotten to me is this sort of mental state where I find myself thinking of things that people do: Are they treating me this way because I’m a woman? Is this more difficult for me because I’m a woman?” she said. “There’s still a feeling that I’m not being treated the same or being provided the same level of authority because I’m a woman.”
Nikiko Masumoto, farmer
As a woman farmer, Masumoto routinely faces questions about her capabilities in her profession.
“Whenever I introduce myself as a farmer, I’m immediately quizzed on my knowledge of equipment and farming practices – questions they’re not asking young men in farming. They don’t believe that somebody in my body can be a legitimate farmer,” she said. “Constantly, my contributions have been misattributed to men. This does not happen at the same rate to men who speak up.”
Masumoto, 32, of Masumoto Family Farm, said her experiences over the years – including being groped or looked up and down – makes her calculate how she presents herself.
“It’s like this incredible weight and completely unfair burden that I have to carry – where I have to think through every single one of my interactions with men. I can’t just be and work,” she said. “I have to self-censor and monitor my own behavior so I cannot be blamed if something happens.”
Masumoto, a Japanese American who identifies as queer, said it’s important that the national conversation focuses on the less privileged, who often disproportionately experience such harassment. “This almost always results in women of color and queer folks having less power,” she said.
An important example of this are the rampant reports of rape among undocumented farmworkers, Masumoto said.
“The rates at which farmworker women are sexually assaulted, harassed and raped are completely unacceptable,” she said.
Masumoto sees relief on the faces of farmworkers when they see a woman is in charge. “There is an automatic camaraderie and sense of ease when women are working on our farm.”
Veronica Stumpf, real estate broker
When Stumpf is showing properties to a male client, she usually has an escape plan in case she’s attacked. She brings Mace and thinks about how her umbrella could double as a weapon. She’s taken self-defense classes.
“I feel as if I always have to be on guard when it comes to showing properties. I make sure people know where I am or that I have someone else with me,” she said. “I don’t want to go into the details of what all I do, but I make sure (clients) enter the property first and that I have an easy way out if it does go south.”
Stumpf, 26, is a rarity in the commercial real estate field, which is predominantly made up of men twice her age. Working alongside her father at Stumpf and Company Real Estate in Fresno, she’s been mistaken for the office secretary more than once.
“I get a lot of pet names like honey or sweetie or dear,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”
But Stumpf said she’s hopeful that the national conversation can make a local impact. Recently, an agent who she had never talked to before called her about a deal. He called her “my dear,” but before he hung up, he backtracked.
“He said, ‘I’m so sorry. That was not an appropriate thing to call you. I should have just said thank you,’ ” she said. “I thought that was incredible. It is astounding how this older guy is learning from all this, about what not to do when talking to women.”
Abre’ Conner, attorney
Conner was standing in the attorneys-only line at the Fresno County courthouse alongside a male colleague when a security guard stopped her.
“He said, ‘Oh, this is the attorney line.’ I said, ‘Yes, I know, I’m an attorney,’ ” she said.
Another time, when Conner, who is black, walked into a room to present a case with the assistance of a white colleague, all eyes were on him – not her.
“When we sat down, people immediately assumed that the white man was the person who was making the decisions for our organization. They looked at him to validate my points, when actually he was there assisting me,” she said. “By virtue of that person’s race and gender they had instant credibility. There’s still a stigma that men are the ones who are supposed to be in charge, and being a young black woman adds another layer.”
Conner, a Fresno-based civil rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said while race adds an extra hurdle, women in general have to work harder to prove their worth. They have to self-monitor; watch their tone and keep a poker face, she said.
“There’s just all of these competing issues that come up that make it difficult to navigate the day-to-day,” she said. “Your credibility is just always on the line, even when you have proven yourself to be someone who is credible. I have to prove myself over and over and over again.”
Conner, 30, said that in conservative Fresno, it can be especially hard for women to call out injustices.
“It’s interesting because every single day I’m working with people in this city, advocating for their rights, and then to face it myself … I think, ‘OK this is why sometimes clients don’t want to come out and say something,’ ” she said. “They know that this patriarchal society we’re living in makes it very difficult for women to stand up for themselves.”