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 an essay 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.

9 responses to “A Brief History of Sexual Harassment in the United States

  1. 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.

  2. Was there any resolution? Were you able to return to work? Did you find another place of employment?

  3. I think you should have contacted the EEOC, now I think it’s too late. The claim has to be filed within 180 days. Contact them to see what they can do.

  4. I think it was good you stood up for yourself. Most would not do that. I think you will find a job. I also believe that what you went through is not okay there should be laws that make the process of getting rid of the problem much easier. There shouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

  5. I cant imagine what its like to be sexually harrased. Please dont hesitate to talk to a higher up first then HR. Please dont stay silent!

  6. I am in the same boat but the genders are reversed. I do not know what to say to you except to find a way out as soon as possible without telling anyone. My harasser was female and went round everyone in any environment I went to and destroyed my reputation and drove me out of my life. She is now controlling me through my family who deny it but it is obvious from the positions they adopt and the behaviours they exhibit that they are doing things she tells them to do as they are the same sorts of things I encountered at that job and nowhere else previously. I have normal interactions with people in new environments or environments that have not been poisoned but everywhere else is poisoned. I went to work to do my job and spent almost 4 months being harassed by her through colleagues and when she did not get what she wanted she turned everyone everywhere against me behind my back and did what I described. Be grateful for your gender as you are more likely to be protected in the future than I wasn’t. I tried to get away from her after day 3 but did not know at the time she had infiltrated my private email account and was contacting those I was trying to secure employment with behind my back to stop me leaving. Since I joined that company she has basically stolen and ruined my life and everyone everywhere sticks the boot in. I did not make the first move or indeed any move. She had no way to blame me as I did nothing to cause it so she destroyed my life to cover up what she did and transfer the blame to me by hiding the truth under a concoction of lies everyone joined in on because she’s a girl and I’m a guy. No matter who I speak to, they ask me questions to get information for her then lie to my face about what they are doing whilst smirking. She then uses that information against me in some way. Your priority should be getting away and starting a new life then suing them if you choose to sue but do not expect suing them to help you – the best you will get is some money if you do in fact succeed and they will deny and distort everything to your disadvantage. You also need to think about whether you will get another job if future employers find out you sued your last employer.

  7. Good idea to contact the EEOC on the time frame. If you were not aware of the time frame it may begin when you become aware of it. The EEOC will investigate your claim by interviewing other employee. However, before going ahead make sure you haven’t done anything to unintentionally invited his behavior which would be collaborated by other employees. Your follow up may prevented other woman from a similar experience.

  8. Fortunately, the world is starting to change with the tidal wave of women coming forward lately with accusations of sexual harassment. We can make it easier for them to speak out when we support them. A big thank you to Anita Hill who led the way to women taking back their power!

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