Sexual Harassment: Open Season on Working Women

Saks Fifth Avenue protestNOW NYC activists forced Saks Fifth Avenue to back down after Saks tried to limit its liability for an employee's rape of a co-worker. Photo courtesy of NOW NYC.

by Beth Corbin, Field Organizer,
and Lisa Bennett-Haigney, Membership Administrative Assistant

In the past several months, hardly a week has passed without a major news story involving harassment -- ranging from allegations against the country's commander-in-chief (see Viewpoint) to men on the assembly line at a Mitsubishi automobile plant to the military. In each case, NOW has had a voice.

Monitoring Mitsubishi

Round One in NOW's battle with Mitsubishi ended in January following a breakthrough in negotiations between Mitsubishi, NOW and Rainbow/PUSH. NOW President Patricia Ireland consequently called for a temporary suspension of pickets outside Mitsubishi dealerships while NOW monitors the company's progress in creating a workplace free of race and sex discrimination.

NOW also is monitoring Mitsubishi's response to two lawsuits involving allegations of sexual harassment.

Former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin issued the Martin Report Feb. 12, which included 34 recommendations in seven general areas, complete with rationales and timelines for developing a model workplace for its employees. Despite the announcement, however, NOW intends to keep a wary eye on Mitsubishi's progress.

"This potential for progress is only possible because of the courageous women who came forward to allege sexual harassment," Ireland said. "We're going to be watchdogs -- not lapdogs -- of the company to make sure that reality lives up to rhetoric for those women."

Mitsubishi still faces legal action stemming from sexual harassment allegations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the largest sexual harassment suit in its history against the Normal, Ill., manufacturer a year ago, alleging harassment of some 300 to 500 female employees. And 29 women filed a private, civil suit on similar charges against Mitsubishi.

NOW remains steadfast in supporting women currently or formerly employed at the plant.

"Our campaign is far from over," Ireland said. "After almost a year of pickets and protests against Mitsubishi on behalf of the women who were sexually harassed at its plant, we're finally seeing positive results. But NOW's activists are ready to spring into action if Mitsubishi stalls progress or reneges on its promises."

Mitsubishi has pledged to increase the number of women- and minority-owned dealerships, move more women and people of color into management positions and to increase the number of women and minority-owned vendors with whom they do business. If enacted, the changes could bring as much as $200 million in new investment and economic opportunities to women and people of color.

Combatting Harassment in the Military

NOW Vice President-Membership and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Karen Johnson attended a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual harassment in the military in the wake of increasing numbers of complaints from women at the Army training center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

In November the U.S. Army made public charges of rape, sexual harassment and other abuses of authority against four drill instructors and a captain at Aberdeen. Three other instructors have since been charged and at least 15 more have been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

A sexual harassment hotline was set up at Aberdeen and in just two months received 6,825 calls from women in all branches of the military. More than 1,000 of the complaints are under further investigation.

During the hearings, Johnson became concerned with a "very disturbing line of questioning" concerning re-segregation of women and men in training. It was suggested that such segregation would solve the military's problem with sexual harassment.

"As a female who was in uniform for 20 years, I experienced sexual harassment on more than half a dozen occasions," Johnson revealed. "This is not about sexual tension -- harassment is about the abuse of power and anti-competitive behavior."

NOW has called for creation of a rapid response team of experienced investigators outside the military structure for reporting and investigating complaints. A 1995 study of military women revealed that more than half experienced sexual harassment in the previous year, while less than half had faith that their sexual harassment complaints would be seriously investigated within the military structure.

"Zero tolerance for sexual harassment and strict disciplinary measures against violators isn't possible from within the military structure because the chain of command clearly has some very weak and broken links," Johnson said. "An outside investigative team is needed for matters to be handled fairly for the women and the accused."

Johnson cited several examples of the military's broken chain of command.

Consider Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, the Army's highest ranking enlisted soldier, who was forced to resign from the Army's review panel on sexual harassment after allegations of sexual improprieties against him were made public.

Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Brenda Hoster, a 22-year veteran, filed a complaint against McKinney last year, alleging he made unwanted sexual advances toward her. Even though she complained to an officer, no action was taken, and Hoster opted for early retirement. She took her case to the media after learning that McKinney had been named to the review panel.

Despite McKinney's resignation from the panel, the Army initially refused to suspend him from duties pending an investigation, even though it suspended personnel under investigation at Aberdeen. Army Secretary Togo West said a suspension was not necessary because McKinney, unlike drill sergeants at Aberdeen, did not have intimate contact with female recruits.

Shortly after West's comments, it was reported that a second female soldier had come forward with charges that McKinney made unwanted sexual comments toward her. The Army then suspended McKinney during its investigation. A third military women also has alleged that McKinney sexually harassed her.

As another example of the military's internal bias, Johnson cited the case of two U.S. Army soldiers in Germany who last November were allowed to leave the Army with less-than-honorable discharges instead of facing courts-martial on charges of raping a 12-year-old girl.

NOW has also objected to U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer's, R-Ind., leadership of a congressional task force on sexual harassment in the military. Buyer, a Gulf War veteran, is an officer in the Army Reserves and a graduate of The Citadel.

"When a person is still in the military, as Rep. Buyer is, his or her first loyalty is to the military. As an officer in the Army Reserve he is a link in the chain of command that has failed to protect female soldiers from sexual harassment and abuse," Johnson said. "Clearly, the military has consistently demonstrated a lack of will to go with its rhetoric of zero tolerance."

Is the Welcome Mat Believable?

Cartoon with permission of Mike Ramirez and Copley News Service

Shannon Faulkner must feel vindicated after blazing the legal path that led to women being allowed into publicly funded military academies. The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute (VMI) were the last of the all-male bastions to accept women -- with great reluctance to follow the law and at great physical and emotional peril for some of the women.

Last fall, four women entered The Corps of Cadets at The Citadel, and by January two of the women withdrew. Jeanie Mentavlos and Kim Messer reported that they suffered repeated incidents of hazing and harassment, including unwelcome sexual advances and having their clothes set ablaze. Two male cadets allegedly involved resigned, and almost a dozen more face disciplinary hearings.

The FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division are investigating the allegations. The Citadel is continuing its internal investigation and has formed a committee to review and improve the school's gender assimilation plan. The Citadel has accepted 24 women for the next school year, when a new president, the father of one of the two women remaining at the school, will take over.

VMI has been notably slower in opening its doors to women, despite the Supreme Court's ruling last June that its all-male policy was unconstitutional. After pressure from the Justice Department and Virginia Gov. George Allen, VMI will admit its first coed class this fall. Thus far, 14 women have been accepted into the corps.

The school has been ordered to provide a U.S. district judge with quarterly reports on how VMI will offer women equal opportunities and protect them from sexual harassment.

Constitutional Equality Needed

In January the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Lanier, a case involving a Tennessee judge whose conviction for sexual assault was overturned by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge David Lanier was convicted in 1993 on federal charges of violating the "rights and privileges" of five women. Four were court or county employees, and the fifth was a job applicant whose child custody case Lanier could have influenced.

Lanier was accused of repeatedly pressuring the women for sex, fondling their breasts and buttocks, exposing himself to them and forcing one of the women to have oral sex with him. He could go free unless the Supreme Court rules that there are constitutional protections against sexual assaults against women by public officials.

Because there is no federal anti-rape law, Lanier was prosecuted under an 1874 law known as Section 242 that makes it a crime for government officials to use their official authority willfully to deprive someone of rights protected by the Constitution.

The Reconstruction-era statute was originally used to protect the rights of African Americans against southern sheriffs. It has since become the primary tool for federal prosecutors to help other victims of local government brutality. The law was used in the federal prosecution of two former Los Angeles police officers convicted in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King.

Lanier's conviction and 25-year prison sentence were overturned when the federal appeals court ruled that freedom from sexual assault had never been recognized as a federally protected right.

"This case is an outrageous example of why women's rights need to be written into the Constitution," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "Without it, a local judge can argue, and a panel of federal appeals judges agree, that women do not have a constitutional right to bodily integrity."

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