She was a bank teller, not an actress. And her boss was a branch manager, not a powerful movie mogul.
But nearly four decades before the explosive sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein by women in Hollywood, Mechelle Vinson filed a lawsuit against her supervisor that ended at the U.S. Supreme Court and redefined sexual harassment in the workplace.
Vinson had been fired from her job at Capital City Federal Savings Bank in Northeast Washington when she filed her lawsuit in 1978. In it, she claimed that during the four years she worked at the bank, the branch manager, Sidney L. Taylor, repeatedly sexually assaulted her — once forcing her to the floor in the bank vault. Taylor threatened to fire her if she refused his demands, she said.
The case, Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson, was the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court.
The harassment, the lawsuit said, began in 1974. A few months after she began working as a 19-year-old teller trainee at the small bank, the manager asked her out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant was connected to a motel, and after dinner the manager demanded she have sex in exchange for keeping her job.
She told him she appreciated his help in hiring her for the job, according to court records.
“I don’t want appreciation,” Vinson recalled Taylor telling her. “I want to go to bed with you.”
When she refused, he threatened her.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to go to bed with you,’ ” Vinson told The Washington Post in a 1986 interview. “And he says, ‘Just like I hired you, I’ll fire you. Just like I made you, I’ll break you, and if you don’t do what I say then I’ll have you killed.’ … And that’s how it started.”
Taylor, a church deacon and a married man with seven children, denied the allegations. But Vinson, who still lives in the Washington area but couldn’t be reached for an interview, estimated that she “had intercourse with him some 40 or 50 times,” according to court documents. “Taylor fondled her in front of other employees, followed her into the women’s restroom when she went there alone, exposed himself to her, and even forcibly raped her on several occasions.”
In her interview with The Post, she described how terrifying and humiliating it was.
“We would have problems with the air conditioning and he would say, ‘Mechelle, go downstairs and check the air conditioning, and I would go, and he would come down, grab me,” she remembered. “It was just something like, you’re an animal, you’re nothing, and I’m going to show you you’re nothing.”
In 1977, Vinson, who’d risen to assistant branch manager, took an indefinite sick leave from her job. In 1978, she was fired and filed suit against Taylor and the bank, which was later acquired by Meritor Savings.
Her attorney, John Marshall Meisburg Jr., who filed Vinson’s first lawsuit, described it as an “allegation of sexual slavery.”
In 1980, a U.S. District judge ruled against Vinson, saying employers in sex harassment cases, unlike other discrimination cases, could be held liable only if they had been notified of the harassment and did nothing about it. A U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed that decision, and the bank appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
On June 19, 1986, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that sexual harassment violated federal laws against discrimination and that companies could be held liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors — even if the company was unaware of the harassment.
“Without question,” Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote, “when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate’s sex, the supervisor discriminates on the basis of sex.”
The ruling was hailed by women’s groups. It “states definitively, for the first time, that sex harassment is discrimination and that it is definitely illegal,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women.
The impact on the American workplace was enormous, wrote Augustus B. Cochran III in his book “Sexual Harassment and the Law: The Mechelle Vinson Case.” Cochran said “the Supreme Court’s opinion, authored by one of the most conservative justices, brought the problem of sexual harassment into the spotlight and placed power relations between men and women at work squarely on the public agenda.”
Five years later, in 1991, Anita Hill made her sexual harassment accusations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Much of the nation was transfixed by Hill’s televised testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Thomas’s vehement denials. He was confirmed and still sits on the Supreme Court.
In the past year, dozens of women have accused powerful men — Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and now Harvey Weinstein — of being sexual predators in the workplace. Nearly all of them echo the helplessness that Vinson described as her boss pressured her into having sex in a motel room:
“I didn’t know what to do,” she told The Post. “This is a man that I believed in. All the while he was nice to me, he was saying he was going to help me. I just felt sick, like, you know, why is this happening to me? . . . And he kept saying to me I was a big girl now and he wasn’t going to hurt me, and to take my clothes off.
“I just stood there. I didn’t do anything. I was stiff like a board, almost like I was dead. Tears were running down my face. He wasn’t saying anything. He just did what he wanted to do. He took my clothes off, he lay me down and that was it.”
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