Anita Hill’s testimony against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991 remains perhaps the most famous sexual-harassment case in American history. When she worked for him in the Education Department, Hill alleged, Thomas barraged her with discussions of sex acts, bestiality and pornography.
Hill spoke out during a time when sexual harassment legislation was relatively new and — as it is becoming obvious today — Americans were still struggling with what types of behavior were acceptable in the workplace.
Hill’s rather graphic testimony before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee was “must see television.” Thomas denied the allegations and was eventually confirmed to the Supreme Court.
I remember Black folks speaking up about, “why as sister have to do that to a brother,” and other Black folks complaining about the proceedings support of Black male stereotypes. However, I remember very little comments about what Thomas allegedly did being wrong.
Of course Thomas was ultimately confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, but Hill’s decision had immediate consequences. in its wake, sexual-harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled, and payouts from court settlements increased as well.
While the Anita Hill controversy drew national attention to the issue of sexual harassment, several decades before Black women had courageously helped shape America’s sexual harassment laws.
Of course, in America, the ultimate on the job sexual harassment can be traced by to slavery, where Black women were regularly called up to satisfy the master’s desires. Post slavery, the practice remained a common experience among free domestic workers. As women entered the workforce in larger numbers, things didn’t get much better. Women employed in new manufacturing and clerical positions confronted physical and verbal assaults from male supervisors.
If it was tough for White women, it was even tougher for Black women, who had few options for alternative employment. For decades there were few significant changes in the ways women were treated at work.
However in 1975, nearly two decades before Anita Hill testified, Carmita Wood — an African-American woman — had enough and resigned from her job at Cornell University. Wood was experiencing physical problems due to the stress of interacting with her boss, who would often pin her against her desk with his body and describe how aroused he was. She tried to transfer, but her transfer was denied, so she quit and filed for unemployment benefits. The benefits were denied on the grounds that she had left her job “voluntarily” and for “personal reasons.”
With activists from Cornell’s Human Affairs Office and civil-rights lawyers like Eleanor Holmes Norton—who was, at the time, NYC’s commissioner of human rights—Wood helped found Working Women United. The group held speak-outs to illuminate the scope of a problem newly called sexual harassment, but it didn’t stop there. Norton drafted an anti–sexual harassment clause for affirmative-action agreements, a precursor to the sexual-harassment guidelines she would issue in 1980 as chair of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Several years after Wood was denied her benefits, the on-the-job treatment of Diane Williams, a public-information specialist at the US Justice Department; Paulette Barnes, a payroll clerk at the US Environmental Protection Agency; Sandra Bundy, a vocational rehabilitation specialist at the DC Department of Corrections; and Mechelle Vinson, an employee of Meritor Savings Bank, led to several landmark sexual-harassment lawsuits. Williams and Barnes were both fired after rejecting their bosses’ sexual advances. Bundy was harassed by multiple male supervisors. When she complained to her supervisors’ boss, he reportedly said, “Any man in his right mind would want to rape you,” and suggested Bundy have sex with him.
Williams’s case gave rise to a 1976 ruling that quid-pro-quo (something given or received for something else) sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination. Barnes’s case led to a 1977 appeals-court ruling that sexual harassment is sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. And Bundy’s case led to a 1981 ruling that established that it’s possible to bring a sexual-harassment claim under Title VII even if the harassment does not result in job loss.
Vinson, the bank employee, claimed that for three years, beginning when she was 19 years old, her supervisor harassed her constantly and raped her repeatedly during work hours, occasionally in a bank vault at work. Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson was the first sexual-harassment case to reach the Supreme Court. In 1986, citing Norton’s EEOC guidelines, the Court ruled unanimously that sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Besides black plaintiffs, what these cases have in common is that they helped define sexual harassment as a civil-rights violation that harms women as a group, not a personal problem. (Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon has argued that sexual harassment is group-based discrimination that harms all women economically by reinforcing their subordination in the workplace.)
Because sexual exploitation has been an element of racism for black women from slavery to the present, some scholars have suggested that they were quicker than white women to see sexual harassment as a form of discrimination. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw has speculated, “racism may well provide the clarity to see that sexual harassment is neither a flattering gesture nor a misguided social overture but an act of intentional discrimination that is insulting, threatening, and debilitating.”
Holding public-sector jobs may have given some of these women a stronger sense of their rights as workers, and many were influenced and supported by the civil-rights movement. An article in the spring 2004 issue of Feminist Studies described civil-rights attorney and judge Spottswood Robinson III as “the single most influential federal judge in the development of sexual harassment” law. Robinson, one of the lawyers who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, issued precedent-setting rulings in favor of Barnes, Bundy, and Vinson, and served on the judicial panel that upheld the ruling favorable to Williams. Thanks to Norton, Robinson, and other civil-rights lawyers, sexual harassment came to be regarded as a form of discrimination similar to—and, for black women with white harassers, an expression of—racism.