A Brief History of Sexual Harassment in the United States

By Amanda Reed, Communications Intern

As a teenager I was familiar with the term sexual harassment, but I believed it was an uncommon issue. I didn’t realize that was what I was experiencing at my first job. When a coworker made lewd comments or one of the assistant managers asked inappropriate questions I felt uncomfortable but was unsure what to do. I thought I could ignore these incidents and get through the day. Sometimes I wondered if I should talk to my general manager but I worried I would be seen as “causing trouble.” Looking back I know I wasn’t overreacting.

In United States history, slaves and domestic servants were vulnerable to sexual coercion since laws did little to protect them. Although abolitionists were writing and talking about how this issue affected slaves, society placed blame on these women for being “promiscuous by nature” or not fighting off perpetrators. Following the Civil War, women’s right advocates — including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — fought for the pardon of Hester Vaughn, a dairymaid and housekeeper. Vaughn’s boss had fired her from her job when he learned Vaughn was pregnant with his child. She was later found with her dead infant after giving birth alone and in poverty. Vaughn was charged with infanticide, found guilty and sentenced to death. Protesters of Vaughn’s sentence argued that gender and class restrictions put her at risk for sexual coercion; the backlash to Vaughn’s sentence eventually persuaded the governor of Pennsylvania to pardon her.

Groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and labor activists worked to protect women from sexual harassment and coercion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These efforts lessened in the 1920s as female workers were expected to know how to deal with sexual harassment on their own. Guidebooks advised them to learn how to handle unwanted advances in the workplace and to quit if they were unable to ward off lecherous coworkers.

The passage of Title VII in 1964 prohibited sex discrimination in the workplace. Cornell University activists coined the term sexual harassment in 1975, and this pervasive problem was finally given a name. Public awareness of the issue has risen since then. In 1991, law professor Anita Hill alleged that Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together. Although the Senate confirmed Thomas’ nomination, Hill’s actions encouraged more women to speak out.

That same year, the Civil Rights Act was amended to allow victims a jury trial when seeking compensatory and punitive damages under Title VII. The number of sexual harassment cases rose from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Over that same period, awards to victims under federal laws rose from $7.7 million to $27.8 million. Nonetheless, the legislation limited the amount of damages based on the number of employees working for the company being sued.

Due to changing laws, instances of quid pro quo harassment (when a person in a position of power demands sexual favors) have decreased. Hostile environment harassment (when an employee faces extreme or widespread unwanted sexual comments and behaviors), however, has continued. Only 5-15 percent of women experiencing this category of harassment take legal action; of those cases, only 50 percent are found to have cause. Today, a stereotype exists that women who report harassment are being oversensitive, fabricating their stories or trying to get back at a male coworker. Some people see this as an historical issue that is being blown out of proportion.

These attitudes discourage employees from trusting their instincts and speaking up — I know they discouraged me. Workplaces aren’t always safe or comfortable environments for women, and women’s concerns aren’t always taken seriously. Sexual harassment may have a name, but we don’t always recognize it.

One Response to “A Brief History of Sexual Harassment in the United States”

  1. Tammy Clark

    I was sexually harassed at work. I took actions on my own to stop it. Told the harasser to stop touching me, to stay away from me, stop talking to me. I went to my supervisor, manager and the head of HR. They said they could do nothing to him because it wasn’t on camera and no other woman had accused him of the same. I quit my job over it because I felt unsafe and couldn’t keep my thoughts straight. I’ve contacted attorneys but none will help me with a case against where I worked because I cannot afford the fees. I am looking for work but am now facing my utilities getting shut off, loosing my car, getting kicked out of my apartment. Do you have any advice on who I can go to for help. I just want the harassing at work to stop and for the place I worked at to take it seriously.


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