How did sexual harassment become a crime? The forgotten battles

I want to add a trigger warning: this blogpost is about sexualised forms of abuse and will contain descriptions of sexual harassment and sexual violence. I acknowledge that this content may be extremely difficult, and I also encourage you to care for your safety and well-being and stop reading whenever needed. I have added some resources here[1] (specific to Germany) that could support you.

In the famous debate between African-American writer and social critic, James Baldwin, and American conservative author, William F. Buckley Jr., at Cambridge University in 1965, the leading question the two writers discussed upon was: “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”. The answer that Baldwin offered was: “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro…” his emphasis on the word is making his point clear, “…I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing. […] What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history” (The Famous Baldwin-Buckley Debate Still Matters Today - The Atlantic). After months of research on the history of the sexual harassment landmark cases in the US, I have come to the following conclusion: as much as the American dream was, or rather is still, achieved at the expense of the African American People, the legal framework for the fight against sexual harassment at the workplace was led by the unacknowledged contribution of African American women. I am writing this article in the hope that I can shed some light on this obscured part of history.

I don’t know any women who haven’t been sexually harassed at least a couple of times in their life, do you? Verbal, physical, and visual unwelcomed behaviour of a sexual nature has become part of our lives so much so that we consider it as normal. Is anyone shocked, surprised, or indignant if a woman is whistled after on the street? For me personally, the MeToo Movement in 2017 was a big revelation, but one that took some time to sink in. To be honest with you, when I first read about the movement in the news and saw my friends share the hashtag and their personal experiences on Facebook, I was not shocked by the amount of people who stepped forward, but rather surprised at the subsequent outrage. I remember browsing through the MeToo posts and reading about women who had been groped inappropriately, cat called, forcibly kissed, talked to sexually by their boss… Well, that had all happened to me multiple times, as well as many of my female friends, so why was everybody so upset about events like these which were a part of my life since I was 7 years old? I could not understand how these seemingly minor events and other much more violent events, like assault and rape, were suddenly connected. Now I know the issue I was facing four years ago: I was taught that rape and sexual violence were bad and I knew that it was forbidden by law. I did not understand, however, that other such incidents were also not acceptable, and that they too, were criminal acts which one had the right to defend oneself against. Sexual harassment has been, and still is, a part of my everyday life; and yet, I had been raised to ignore it, to shrug it off and to not speak up. Whenever I did try and speak up, I found that it wasn´t taken seriously or that I was powerless against the power dynamic that was in place in my workplaces and various other situations. This might sound simplistic but for a victim of any kind of abuse, it is absolutely crucial to first acknowledge what happened to you and recognize that it was wrong. Wrong to such an extent that a crime was committed against you.

Once I began to realise the extent of this issue in my personal life and in the lives of women around the world, I started to become very passionate (one could say obsessive) about the academic research on this topic, with the intention to detect and shed light on the various power dynamics in place that allow, support, facilitate and normalise this behaviour. I read every article I could find on the MeToo Movement that outlined new sexual harassment and violence cases that came to light and exposed the countless perpetrators who were now returning to the jobs they had once lost due to their actions. I now find myself asking the following questions: What has happened in the MeToo movement over the past four years, what has resulted from the movement, what and how much has changed, where is the change going, and what can we expect/demand for the future? How are we dealing with the victims and the perpetrators, and what are the underlying dynamics that facilitate and normalise this behaviour and these issues? Finally, what can we do about it?

The earliest pioneers of sexual-harassment litigation

"try not to get into those situations"

But before I turn to these pressing present-day questions, I wanted to take a look into the past to understand how sexual harassment was criminalised and on what grounds. This history turns out to be far more revealing than ever expected, with many of the same issues still at play now, some 50 years later. This investigation serves as a reflection not only upon the past and present issues surrounding harassment, violence, and abuse of a sexual nature, but also upon the successes of certain movements and individuals who, due to their bravery and determination, raised awareness and pushed regulations forward to fight this issue. In the United States’ highest court legal system, sexual harassment as a concept was only introduced about 35 years ago and it wasn´t until the ruling of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986 that the Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as an “actionable” offence. (Matt, 2016). Before that, women who were victims of sexual harassment at work were not able to take legal action.

When my research turned towards the German and US-American legal systems to understand the juridical definition of sexual harassment, its history, and the contexts in which it is regulated, I began by looking into the first landmark cases of sexual harassment. From there, I stumbled across a Time (Before Anita Hill: History of Sexual Harassment in the U.S. | Time) article which mentions that many pioneering sexual harassment cases during the 70s were filed by African American women. As it turns out, Women of Colour during the 70s (and a long time before then) played a crucial part in the legal battle against sexual harassment in the workplace. The more I investigated these cases, the more I discovered a familiar issue: the historical exclusion of black women from the feminist movement, and more importantly, the unacknowledged role black women played in the fight against sexual harassment. I came across a large number of sources, including books, scientific texts, media articles, and YouTube Videos, that either use the names of women who fought those legal battles without mentioning their race, or obscure the role that African American woman played in the fight against sexual harassment. Consequently, this exclusion of African American women from the narrative hides the struggles and achievements of one of the biggest feminist movements against sex discrimination, on top of ignoring the tremendous amount of additional burdens and risks faced by these women. Therefore, an intersectional approach is crucial for understanding the full scope of this issue. It is necessary to look at the historical developments, to identify the multilateral structural discriminatory systems in place and recognize the various factors that shape the experiences those who are affected by this issue.

First, I will tell you about Carmita Wood. She was an African American woman, whose story was so vital for the movement against sexual harassment that it continuously shows up in historical recollections of women who were part of the movement. However, what these recollections fail to mention is that she was black, which erases the need to acknowledge the additional intersecting challenges she faced during her fight. Carmita Wood had to quit her job at Cornell University in 1974 because of severe physical repercussions she endured from the stress of fending off her bosses’ advances (Mink, p.20). Wood tried unsuccessfully, to find strategies to deal with the sexual harassment she endured from their boss over the years, such as applying (and being denied) for transfer, as well as filing a complaint with her female colleagues to her immediate superior who dismissed her claim. After being told that they were ‘‘capable of taking care of themselves’’ and that they should ‘‘try not to get into those situations”, Wood finally quit. (Baker, 2007, p.28) She filed for unemployment benefits, which were denied on the grounds that she had left her job “voluntarily” and for “personal reasons.” (Lipsitz, 2017)

The reason Wood’s story is so important is that her story ignited a chain of events, both taking place at Cornell University as well as profound political and cultural changes in the US, that led up to a group of women coining the term “sexual harassment” and the formation of a movement challenging the status quo through legal and political actions.

The book “Hostile Environment: The Political Betrayal of Sexually Harassed Women”, written by Gwendolyn Mink, an American woman with mixed Asian-Lithuanian background, contextualises the situation of women at that time, as well es the legal development before and after Carmita Wood’s sexual harassment case. During Wood’s time, Mink herself experienced sexual harassment and racism throughout her graduate program at Cornell University by her professor, John Untel “a senior faculty member in one of my fields of study, [who] made sex a condition of my education and race the obstacle to my success” (Mink, 2000, p.10).

In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, a memoir by Susan Brownmiller, a leading feminist activist at that time, offers a first-hand recollection of the unfolding events that took place at Cornell University. Brownmilller describes how the term “sexual harassment” was coined by a group of women at Cornell, who shorty after, founded the Working Women United (WWU) organisation and the impact that Carmita Woods testimony had on these events. Her memoir helps to understand the connection between these events, as well as other political and social changes that contributed to the movement.

These two accounts of the term “sexual harassment” provided by Gwendolyn Mink and Susan Brownmiller provide invaluable information on the earliest developments of sexual harassment legislations and are the primary sources of this article.

Early activism against sexual harassment

Following this, we will look at the cultural, political, and legal situation for women (integrating an intersectional perspective) during the 60s and 70s, as well as the socio-political events that set the anti-sexual harassment movement in motion. The focus will thereby lie in the legal situation for women in the work force before the mid-70s. This general overview helps to contextualise the developments during these times and give a better understanding of the legal cases that set the groundwork for the laws which are in place today.

One of the resources that offers an insightful contextualisation of this era, is the book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment by Carrie N. Baker, published in 2007. This historical analysis gives an overview of the developments during the 1960s and 1970s, where dramatic social, political, and legal changes transformed women’s lives in the United States (vgl. Baker, 2007, p.12) Most importantly, the movement against sexual harassment emerged out of the social movements that were challenging the status quo in the early 1960s, including the civil rights movement, the new left and anti-war movements, the labour movement, and the women’s movements. One of the most significant legal and political changes for the sexual harassment movement at that time was the Civil Rights Act, more specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that introduced Title VII, which “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin”. Without Title VII there wouldn´t have been legal grounds to contest the discrimination at the workplace on the basis of sex. And yet, it took many years and many failed cases until six legal landmark cases on sexual harassment, filed between 1971 and 1975, set the legal framework for the fight against sexual harassment at the workplace. (vgl. Baker, 2007, p.15)

We will consider how each of these cases, which took place from 1976 to 1986, contributed to the criminalisation of sexual harassment at the workplace and outline the role that African American women played in this process. Three of the six cases were made by black women. However, before these six cases in the early 1970s, there were a large number of African American women whose unsuccessful legal efforts set the groundwork for the juridical victories that followed. Last but not least, we will take a look at some of these cases as well and investigate their intersecting vulnerabilities resulting from the multiple layers of discrimination black women faced. The risks they took were amplified by the racism they faced, by sexual discrimination, by the absence of awareness on the topic of sexual harassment, by the absence of the laws that were supposed to protect from harm, and finally by the known and unknown consequences of their involvement that affected their families, their friends, their potential employment, and their careers.

“Inside myself there was fear, self-doubt, and insecurity. I asked myself if I really had the courage to go through with it. Would it affect my family and friends? Would people look at me with disgust and scorn? Would they think I had made the whole thing up for some obscure reason of my own? Would it affect any future employment I might try to get? Would anyone else support me in this issue except my closest friends and the immediate group of women I was already working with? The answer to all of these questions is yes.” (Woman Alone by Carmita Wood, Document 6I: Carmita Wood, "Woman Alone," August 1975 | Alexander Street Documents)

There are multiple challenges one faces when attempting to retell this part of history. Instead of trying to smooth over the edges, this article wants to highlight these obstacles and develop a self-reflective and critical perspective. One challenge is posed because the very issue that needs to be challenged (the predominantly white perspective) is part of the research material that tells these stories, and is thereby ingrained in the stories themselves. Sometimes these mechanisms are detectable, but often they become obscured. There are too many (crucial) voices left out and a challenge will be to try and find and include them. For example, Carmita Wood’s story can only be found written by others, quotes of hers are retold for the purpose of their stories but there are no first-hand accounts to be found from her own perspective. That doesn´t necessarily mean her story has been distorted but it does risk appropriation and leave us with uncertainties and questions. There is a huge absence of black voices on these issues, especially during these times, which both reflects and emphasises the historical exclusion they faced, making it challenging to tell the full scope of the story. The white memory has not only dominated history itself but also the recollection of those times and is still in the workings in present times. The task of questioning and revising the collective white knowledge on this topic is not an impossible one, but it will take much time and research to offer a critical, inclusive, and informed perspective and it is one that I will follow gladly.

This article was meant to offer some insight on the vastness of these topics and many questions have remained unanswered. Therefore, the second part of this article will devote a more thorough investigation on the six landmark cases, which were mentioned earlier in this text and dive into the first-hand literature (also mentioned above). This literature will need some contextualisation through an intersectional analysis, for which we will seek out black feminist literature during and about the 1960ies to 1980ies as well as a current critical intersectionality research. Last but not least, we will turn back to the hypothesis that the legal framework for the fight against sexual harassment at the workplace was led by the unacknowledged contribution of African American women and investigate their stories from their perspectives.


[1] The following information on potential support for gendered violence and harassment is specific to Germany and therefore written in German:

Weitergehende Informationen von folgender Webseite entnommen: Sexualisierte Gewalt: Hilfetelefon "Opferfibel – Rechte von Verletzten und Geschädigten in Strafverfahren" Informationen für Opfer zum Strafverfahren (BMJV) – PDF, 1,2 MB "Ich habe Rechte – Ein Wegweiser durch das Strafverfahren für jugendliche Zeuginnen und Zeugen" Informationsbroschüre (BMJV) – PDF, 7,3 MB „Nein! Zu Gewalt gegen Frauen und Mädchen mit Behinderung!" (Bundesverband Frauenberatungsstellen und Frauennotrufe – bff e.V.) „Hilfe für Opfer von Gewalttaten“ Informationsbroschüre zum Opferentschädigungsgesetz (BMAS) – PDF, 411 KB "An ihrer Seite – Informationen und Hilfen für Unterstützer/innen, Freund/innen und Angehörige von Betroffenen häuslicher Gewalt“ (Bundesverband Frauenberatungsstellen und Frauennotrufe – bff e. V.)