There’s no realistic start-date for the practice of sexual harassment — it sadly stretches back as far as recorded history. But sexual harassment as we now know it is a relatively new concept. The term preoccupying the country and dominating conversation in every social sphere from media to politics to entertainment traces back to Cornell University in the mid-1970s.
Journalist Lin Farley was then teaching a course on women and work. She decided to hold a “consciousness-raising” session with her female students, quizzing them on their workplace experiences. The answers Farley got wove an unfortunate pattern.
“Every single one of these kids had already had an experience of having either been forced to quit a job or been fired because they had rejected the sexual overtures of a boss,” she recently explained in an interview with Brooke Gladstone for “On the Media.” “When I left the class, I thought that we needed to have a name for what this phenomenon was. We all needed to be talking about the same thing.”
Farley struggled with colleagues to workshop a phrase that would encapsulate the ugly physical and emotional abuse and pressure women faced on the job. “I thought, well, the closest I can get is ‘sexual harassment of women at work.’ Everything from phrases that referenced sex to touch, all the way up to forced sexual relations, it runs the whole gamut.”
Naming the phenomenon was a major turning point in starting a national discussion; the phrase acted as a bridge between women who had been suffering in isolation. “It was something that we all talked about but because we didn’t have a name, we didn’t know we were all talking about the same thing,” Farley said.
The moment, however, was about more than interjecting new jargon into the zeitgeist. By coining the term “sexual harassment,” Farley and other feminists in the 1970s started a chain reaction that would eventually result in significant court victories setting new legal precedents. Decades later, the momentum seems to have built, as an ever-growing list of powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Charlie Rose fall due to harassment allegations.
But even Farley has mixed feelings about whether the social change she hoped to spark four decades ago has finally arrived.
The terminology made its public debut in 1975, when Farley testified about her work at Cornell before the Commission on Human Rights of New York City.
“Sexual harassment of women in their place of employment is extremely widespread,” she told the panel, according to a 1975 New York Times report. “It is literally epidemic.”
To hammer in the pervasiveness of the problem, Farley shared the results from a questionnaire she had handed out to women at a campus event and to members of a civil service association, the Times reported. Of the 155 respondents, 70 percent had experienced sexual harassment; 92 percent of the women surveyed said it was a serious problem. More than 50 percent of the women who complained about the sexual harassment said nothing was done about the behavior.
A year later, “Redbook” published a survey in which 80 percent of the women responding had experienced sexual harassment on the job, Time reported. The concept had caught.
“It was as if a light had been turned on in a dark room,” Farley wrote of the era in a New York Times commentary last month. “The solidarity that women felt for one another was contagious; sisterhood in the workplace suddenly seemed doable.”
Farley’s early work culminated with a 1978 book, “Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job.” Reaction to the publication, however, showed just how much resistance Farley and other advocates were up against. In a particularly acid Kirkus Review piece on the book, the writer dismissed Farley’s concerns on sexual harassment as “often absurdly radical.”
“The way Ms. Farley would have it, men are lurching out of every file drawer to lech after women workers,” the review stated, before calling the anecdotes of workplace abuse “ridiculous” and “flabby.” The review concluded: “She’s barking up a very shaky tree.”
The courts were equally wary of sexual harassment as a legal concept. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination on the basis of sex but courts refused to treat sexual harassment as a workplace issue covered by a law applied only to the work environment.
For one thing, courts said, harassment was a personal matter, not an employment issue. For another, they reasoned that it wasn’t a gender-based offense because it could happen to either a man or a woman. Finally, the law, while it mentioned sex almost as an afterthought, was primarily about racial discrimination.
But, as Reva B. Siegel recounted in a 2003 article, attorneys and advocates had “to persuade the American judiciary that sexual harassment is ‘discrimination on the basis of sex.’ For this to happen, the injuries inflicted on women by sexual coercion at work had to be presented to court in terms that could be assimilated to a body of law adopted to regulate practices of racial segregation in the workplace.”
According to Siegel, attorney and activist Catherine MacKinnon was responsible for much of the legal theory linking harassment and discrimination. “Sexual harassment perpetuates the interlocking structure by which women have been kept sexually in thrall to men and at the bottom of the labor market,” MacKinnon wrote in 1979. “Two forces of American society converge: men’s control over women’s sexuality and capital’s control over employees’ work lives.”
“Sexual harassment law is the first law written by women about our own condition,” MacKinnon told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2014. “Naming sexual harassment, and calling it what it is in law — a practice of sex discrimination — has given survivors then and now the sense they are not to blame and not alone, the dignity of a civil rights violation, and a forum for accountability and relief.”
As for the Farley, the pioneering writer and activist who coined the term, the legacy of sexual harassment is a mixed bag. In her October Times commentary, Farley noted sexual harassment is now on the radar of every employer and corporation. But the term has also been “co-opted, sanitized, stripped of its power to shock, disturb and galvanize.” The revolution she hoped for did not materialize.
Earlier this month, while sitting on a PBS panel about the rash of public allegations, Farley noted the recent wave does signal a change because of “the numbers of male harassers who are being prosecuted, who are being caught, who are admitting, like this fellow Louis saying, yes, I did it and I’m really sorry,” she said. “This is an extraordinary development in the history of the issue.”
But Farley also cautioned that the examples have all been high-profile. “If it’s Angelina Jolie, it makes headlines,” she said. “If it’s a woman on the assembly line at Grayson Heat Control, she doesn’t make headlines and it goes unnoticed and unseen.”
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