This summer Mechelle Vinson, a former bank teller from Northeast Washington, became a feminist hero.
The sexual harassment suit she'd filed eight years ago against her old boss and the bank that had employed them both, the first sexual harassment case ever to reach the Supreme Court, made history and headlines. The court's unanimous opinion -- that sexual harassment violates federal law, that a business may be held liable when one employe harasses another, and that sexual harassment can be said to exist even when it doesn't involve a threat to a person's job -- was hailed by many as a victory for anyone who ever suffered a pinch, proposition or any other stunt perpetrated in the name of lust, piggishness or power.
*Vinson herself seemed surprised and thrilled by the news. Newspaper photographs of Mechelle Vinson showed a petite, pretty woman with large brown eyes and a wide, triumphant smile. Before long, the television talk shows were calling and even in her own neighborhood, strangers approached to seek advice and offer congratulations. "I've had a lot of women come up and say they've been harassed but just didn't have the guts to stand up," Vinson said. "One girl, 20 years old, came up and kissed me. She said she'd been abused but she didn't know what to do."
The high court's ruling, however, was not quite the decisive victory for Vinson it seemed. At the same time the court ruled on the law of sexual harassment, it sent the case that had spawned it back to a lower court for retrial. While the court's ruling will change the way the facts in the Vinson case are reviewed the second time around, the thorny matter of who is telling the truth in Meritor Savings Bank et al. v. Vinson is still very much in dispute.
Even for a sexual harassment case, Vinson seems rather lurid. John Marshall Meisburg Jr., the attorney who filed Vinson's first complaint, describes the case as the most "bizarre" he's seen in 15 years of law practice. "What we alleged in the complaint," he says, "was essentially a case of sexual slavery."
Feminist lawyers who have watched Vinson's case work its way to the Supreme Court say that the mistreatment she alleged was unusual in both duration and duress. According to Karen Sauvigne, an attorney and chairman of the board of the New York-based Working Women's Institute, it is the first sexual harassment case in which the alleged facts are not that a woman rejected the harassment of a supervisor and experienced job discrimination, "but that she acquiesced, at least for a while, and then couldn't bear it. That we won this case with those facts is very significant, because that's the least 'sympathetic' appellant."
Vinson is also the kind of case critics have in mind when they argue that the problem of sexual harassment doesn't belong in a court of law. They envision hundreds, thousands of cases like Vinson's, cases filed by jilted lovers, disappointed mistresses, vengeful junior VPs, phalanxes of pink-collar Machiavellis seeking revenge and recompense.
* As one sifts through what there is of the trial record (most of it has never been transcribed), listening to the primary and secondary players, reading the depositions that weren't admitted as evidence and the depositions that were, learning of the subplots and sub-subplots, many of which involve more sex, and peeling back layers of memory and inconsistency, that vision begins to seem not unreasonable.
But if Mechelle Vinson is telling the truth and if there's as much sexual harassment in the work place as the most reliable studies say there is, even if it's only a fraction as extreme as that alleged in the Vinson case, it seems just as reasonable to argue that the Supreme Court's decision didn't come a moment too soon.
What Mechelle Vinson alleged was this: that for more than three years, between the time she was hired as teller trainee at the age of 19 until the day she left, her supervisor at the Rhode Island Avenue NE branch of the bank, Sidney L. Taylor, a married man with seven children, a man who had worked his way up from janitor to branch manager and assistant vice president, had consistently abused her verbally and physically, including approximately a dozen incidents of what she says was forcible intercourse, or rape. At least three of those episodes, she testified at her trial, took place in a bank vault.
Vinson alleged that Taylor, the man who had hired her, had behaved "like a father" toward her in her first three months on the job, lent her money to pay for her apartment, paid her for overtime she hadn't worked and bought roses for her teller window, also had a habit of barging into the ladies' room after Vinson and other women employes, banging on the stall doors and making demands for sexual favors.
On other occasions, Vinson testified, Taylor put his hands on her, pushed her down on the floor, and, after midday visits to a go-go club up the street, returned to the bank and exhibited pornographic magazines to the bank's female employes, making lewd suggestions. When these women asked Vinson, as their supervisor, to intervene on their behalf, Vinson testified that Taylor told her: "This is my office and I will do what I like; if they don't like it, they can get the hell out -- that is my way of relaxing them."
In short, Vinson alleged, Taylor made her life a waking hell for nearly four years. "He used that bank for his away-from-home playhouse," she said in a recent interview.
The bank denied and continues to deny all liability and says Vinson was fired for taking excessive sick leave. (Vinson says she left on sick leave on an attorney's recommendation once she realized that she had an actionable complaint.) Sidney Taylor, who is still working at the same bank at the same job, has steadfastly denied every allegation, almost every word of Vinson's testimony.
"Right now, I don't know if Ms. Vinson is a man or a woman," Taylor says. "I have never had sex and don't intend to have sex with her; I have never sexually harassed her or any other woman in this branch."
Taylor says he believes Vinson filed her complaint because she was angry at having to give up a highly visible desk at the front of the bank when she was promoted to assistant bank manager. He also speculates that she may have hoped to make enough money in court to help save a faltering houseplant business.
"I believe that she did this in order to get back at me. I believe she did this to get the publicity, and she got quite a lot of it in this day and age . . . "
Those skeptical of Vinson's allegations have noted that she continued to work at the bank, receiving regular promotions and raises, for almost three years after the first time she alleges she was strong-armed into having sex with her boss at a Bladensburg Road motel.
In fact, one of the few things that Taylor, the bank and Vinson agree on is that during that time she was considered an excellent employe and received regular raises and promotions on merit, rising from teller trainee to assistant branch manager.
During that time she did not report the alleged incidents of assault and rape to the police or to bank officials. (Vinson testified that she kept silent because Taylor had threatened her life.)
Mechelle Vinson lost her case at trial. In January 1980, U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn listened to 11 days of trial testimony and concluded that Vinson had suffered neither sexual harassment nor job discrimination. He did not resolve conflicting testimony about the alleged sexual relationship between Taylor and Vinson, but ruled that if there had been one, it was voluntary.
Saying that the case was a matter between Vinson and Taylor, the judge dismissed as irrelevant testimony from two former coworkers who said Taylor had harassed them, testimony introduced by Vinson's lawyer to buttress her argument that the work environment at the Rhode Island Avenue branch was hostile and discriminatory to women. The bank could not be held liable, the judge ruled, because Vinson had never told bank officials of her alleged problem.
When Vinson appealed the decision, however, the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's finding, and held that a work environment where sexual harassment was routine was in itself grounds for complaint, regardless of whether the harassment involved a threat to an employe's job. The appeals court also ruled that what matters is not whether a sexual relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate was "voluntary" but whether it was welcome. And the court ruled that the trial judge had erred in allowing the bank to present testimony from a bank employe about Vinson's dress and behavior at work.
The bank appealed to the Supreme Court, where its arguments were supported by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was concerned about the implications of the decision for business.
Vinson's case also attracted interested supporters, including 29 members of Congress, the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association and the Women's Legal Defense Fund. Vinson's lawyer, Patricia J. Barry, stayed with the case for years despite the advice of friends who urged her to drop it, warning that it would be her Vietnam. Attorneys for such groups as the Women's Legal Defense Fund and the Working Women's Institute donated hundreds of hours of time to the case. (When Vinson could not afford to have transcripts of the trial record made for her appeal, women's-rights groups passed the hat, but only raised enough to pay for a few hundred pages.)
Taylor's supporters say he is innocent. "This whole thing is completely erroneous," says Reuben J. McNair Sr., a retired Marine and District government employe and a longtime friend of Taylor. "I've known Mr. Taylor personally the past 20 years. He's been very inspirational in getting youngsters jobs . . .
"Being a supervisor, he's in a bad position," McNair says. "He's got a lot of young ladies running around there and they want promotions and they're putting themselves over."
Mechelle Vinson's supporters say she is the classic victim, and that at the age of 19 she was especially vulnerable to the sexual demands of a supervisor. They find evidence of her credibility in the simple fact that she has stayed with the case, unwavering even in the prospect of public disclosure of the most intimate details. Taylor, they say, is the classic harasser.
"It was his habitual custom and practice to abuse young women in this way, to use the force of his position to coerce and sexually harass these women," says Vinson's lawyer Barry. "She was young, she was poor, it was her first real job," says attorney Meisburg. "She did not want to be blackballed in the banking industry. She felt she had to comply."
Mechelle Vinson is 31 now, 12 years older than when she first showed up for work at the Northeast branch of what was then the Capital City Federal Savings bank. Her voice is sweet and high and she has a disconcerting habit of greeting everyone, including strangers. "Hi," she said, walking through the corridor of an unfamiliar office building. "Hello!" There is something beseeching about the greeting and people look at her quizzically.
"I find that people do not greet each other," she explains. "There's no warmth. There's no love. I've always said hello. I've always smiled. Because a smile or a hello doesn't hurt anyone. And I find that some people who are feeling bad or who have had bad days, if you speak to them or give them a smile, you never know, you can make the day go better."
Vinson grew up in Washington, the daughter of a D.C. Sanitation Department employe. She dropped out of Spingarn High School to marry, earning a graduate equivalency degree later. The attorney to whom Vinson first told her story remembers being struck by her naivete'. "She was not a hard, streetwise person," says Judith N. Ludvic. "I think she is still naive. She would think a person was good before suspecting them of an evil intention."
She arrives for lunch at a quiet hotel dining room dressed in a silky, violet-colored dress, form-fitting but not tight. She is carefully made up, and accompanied by a tall, youngish man who introduces himself as "Baktuu," a doctor of herbal and holistic medicine for whom Vinson works as an office assistant several days a week. He has come, he explains, to help protect her.
She seems nervous, cordial but cool. She speaks clearly and slowly, taking care to correct any grammatical mistakes. She has picked up a lot of legalese in the past eight years, uses "informed" instead of "told," and she can work phrases like "pertaining to" into a sentence two or three times. She has been over her story many times by now. When she tells the critical parts, it is sometimes in the same phrases and cadences that she has used in television interviews.
Clothing was a subject that came up at the trial, as did testimony from a former coworker who said that Vinson had bragged about possessing voodoo powers, that she had told other bank employes about fantasies of sex and violence, including one in which she had sexual relations with a deceased grandfather. Vinson's lawyers objected to the testimony, and Vinson indignantly denies ever discussing anything like that with anyone at the bank.
"If I worked the voodoo like they claim I did, then I wouldn't have been in court that day," she says. "They claimed I could cast spells and I had powers over a witness , who was testifying, and so I had to leave the courtroom . . And I said, how absurd. How could one person have all this power and couldn't work it in my own benefit? I mean, if I had all this power, then he Taylor wouldn't have been around."
When she repeats her allegations about Taylor's behavior, she sometimes uses euphemisms for body parts and sexual acts. At other times she is clinical and specific. When questioned closely about why she waited almost four years to file a complaint, her voice rises slightly. The only other sign of distress is a slight trembling of her hands. But most of the time, there is a polite, patient calm. If she resents having to defend herself, having to explain herself over and over, she does not show it.
She seems secretive, evasive when asked if she will meet a reporter at her parents' house. She will not allow a reporter to speak with her mother; a sister may be interviewed instead.
She says she knows that some people may not believe her, cannot imagine why she did what she did. "No one really knows what they would do in any one given situation. You can rationalize or be logical . . . but once you get into it it's completely different. It's just like explaining to a child how sugar tastes, and if you never taste it, well, how can you tell them how it tastes?"
Vinson says she waited three years before telling anyone about the harassment because she was afraid. "One . . . I was very much afraid for my life. Two, not being totally educated of the law. I had blinders on, I didn't see an outlet. I didn't have any support groups or anyone I could talk to about what I was going through. That's the reason I stayed in it so long. Out of fear."
Later that afternoon, after being photographed in front of the bank -- she says she has not been back since 1979 and pronounces the visit "scary -- my heart beats fast" -- she turns to walk back to a waiting taxi. She spots two men in work clothing, sitting in the front seat of a nearby car. Vinson walks past, stiffening slightly, holding her head up and focusing on the middle distance. As she passes, one of the men swivels, leans out the window and murmurs something.
What did he say?
"Oh," she says quickly, looking embarrassed, "it was something about 'She's most attractive.' "
Once in the taxi she added: "See, men, they don't respect your wishes. You can be walking down the streets just to go to the store, and you're harassed. And a lot of times, when you don't respond, you get called names, or sometimes they're very persistent. You get harassed on a number of levels."
Sidney Taylor would not agree to talk with a reporter at the bank, and insisted on a phone interview, with his lawyer listening in from Atlanta. His only previous public statement about the case was on CBS' "Nightwatch," where he appeared in shadow, with his back to the camera.
*He describes himself as about 5 feet 11. A high school graduate, he spent a year and a half at a college in Georgia, began working as a shipping clerk at a local Air Force base and then enlisted in the Army and served 12 years, rising to the rank of sergeant. He started at the bank as a janitor and messenger, left to attend a school for savings and loan employes, and then began a steady rise. He lives in Northeast Washington in a two-story red brick house, not far from the smaller row house where Mechelle Vinson lives with her parents. A friend says Taylor is a deacon at his church and a member of numerous civic organizations.
Vinson says Taylor often described himself to employes at the Northeast branch as the bank's "token black manager," and that it was important to do well for that reason. Taylor denies saying that. When he speaks, he seems to have a sense of mission about his career and refers often in the course of a two-hour interview to his struggle for success, his hard work and his responsibilities as a successful black man in his community.
"We went from $7 million at this bank to now we're at $16 million, and we didn't get this by just sitting around. We had to get out and meet the public, meet the community. At one time I was a member of 15 civic associations, social clubs within the community. I have taught most of the blacks in this area how to save, and ever since then they have maintained the confidence in me and showed me and the bank how much they appreciated my doing this . . . I did personalize the business. I put personality in banking."
Taylor says his job included responsibility for two other branches, including one, now closed, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. "That one had zero assets when we started, and when I turned it over we had $700,000 and when we closed it ended up $1.2 million. We've been out there, done everything to help my people. No one had tried to put personality in it before, no one had tried to reach them personally. I'm glad I had the talent to do this . . . "
Taylor says he made it a habit to recruit young people from the neighborhood as part of a personal quest to give others the same opportunities that he had had.
"I'm setting myself up as a black man who has tried to raise his family in a devious world," he says, "who has tried to help his people as much as he can, who has given everything he possibly could to help old as well as young, who did everything in his power to try and teach young people today so they would be able to prepare for the future . . . That's my job as a leader in this community and I will continue to do this as long as I possibly can . . . What we tried to do, you have to understand there were very few blacks in banking in the '60s, and we tried to show that blacks can handle banking just as good as any other race."
He says Mechelle Vinson had been to his house on several occasions as a guest of his family. "She had come over to my home to some of the barbecue cookouts. We had helped her with her flower business . . . I took Ms. Vinson when she didn't have any banking experience whatsoever. I was training her for head teller. I even recommended that she become assistant bank manager.
"My wife always told me that I'm too easy, I'm too good, I try to help too many people, and sometime it's going to backfire in my face. I try to be a good man to the best of my ability. This is just like a shot, for someone to try and murder another person's character. You begin to wonder who you're going to trust."
Vinson says she saw his family only when they stopped by the bank and that she had only been to his house once, in the company of another bank employe, on business.
Taylor says he feels betrayed that Vinson walked out on sick leave and never told him about her plans. "She didn't leave angry or upset, she left on sick leave . . . And the next thing I know, federal marshals came in . . . "
Tomorrow: The case and the courts.