The Formation of Sexual Harassment Law by Black Women
By Karani Johnson
Before Times Up, before #MeToo, and almost 20 years before Anita Hill, black women filed the first sexual harassment cases in our nation’s courts. They won, set precedent and giving us the very first laws that criminalized sexual harassment.
Before these cases, judges considered sexual harassment a personal matter. They feared the lawsuits that might flood the courts if it were deemed a violation that affected women as a group. After these cases, the courts recognized sexual harassment as gender-based discrimination that reinforced women’s subordination as a group, which was prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Dianne Rennay Williams was the first successful case in history, which made quid-pro-quo sexual harassment a crime in 1976. Williams was a 24 year-old information specialist for the District of Columbia’s Justice Department when her harassment began in 1972. Her supervisor, also black, promised career advancement in exchange for sex. He also requested she wear her dresses shorter, sent her love notes, and accused her of having sex with other men in the office. When she rejected his advances, he found fault with her work, publicly humiliated her, refused to inform her of matters pertinent to her job and then fired her.
Williams understood procedure because her job was to provide mediation services against racial discrimination, so she immediately filed a complaint with an EEO officer. It was denied on the grounds she was no longer an employee. At trial, the government portrayed Williams as a loose and immoral woman. Her harasser claimed he fired her for poor job performance. The lower courts upheld this claim. Her case climbed up and down the judicial ladder for almost 9 years, in what she described as a degrading and emotionally-draining experience. Her mother even testified in court that her daughter was not the disco queen of D.C.
Finally, a federal district court judge found the only poor job performance to be related to the environment her supervisor had created. He then ruled in her favor, proving quid-pro-quo sexual harassment was sex/gender based discrimination, covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision sent shock throughout the country.
Paulette Barnes, a payroll clerk at the US Environmental Protection Agency, followed in 1977. Her supervisors, at the agency’s Equal Opportunity Division, abolished her job after a daunting campaign of humiliation that included belittling her publicly, stripping away her duties until they simply abolished her job completely.
Initially, her complaint to the Civil Service Commission was rejected. The commision ruled that Barnes was not penalized because she was a female, but because she rejected her supervisor’s advances. In 1974, a lower court judge agreed and dismissed her case, stating that requests for sex, from her supervisor, did not violate the law. In 1977, the federal appellate court reversed that decision, and ruled that she was asked for sex because she was a woman, and the resulting retaliation was sexual harassment and a crime. Her case proved that retaliation is sexual harassment and is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Acts.
In 1981, Sandra Bundy prevailed in a case that revolved around a hostile work environment at the District Of Columbia Department of Corrections (DCDC). Although she earned several promotions, she did so while harassed by multiple male supervisors beginning in 1972. They questioned her about her sexual taste, asked to share a room on out of town trips and when she complained to the lead supervisor, his response was, “Any man in his right mind would want to have sex with you.” He propositioned her, too. The District Court originally ruled that her rights had not been violated, citing sexual harassment as simply “standard operating procedure at the DCDC”. Upon appeal the prestigious D.C. Circuit Court reversed that decision, and made history as the first federal appeals court to declare a “Hostile Work Environment” to be discrimination even if one is not fired.
It was also in 1981 that Willie Ruth Hawkins won the first co-worker sexual harassment case. Hawkins’ harassment began in 1974, by multiple male co-workers, as one of two women, working a blue-collar factory job at the Continental Can Company in Eagan, Minnesota. She was physically assaulted, threatened at gunpoint and told that any woman who worked in a factory had to be a tramp. Another harasser said “He wished slavery days would return so that he could sexually train her and she would be his bitch.” When she complained, their supervisor stated, “She should expect such, being a woman.” After several years of litigation, the court ruled that companies are liable for the actions of their supervisors and managers.
Karani Johnson is the author of the award winning play “The Trial Of One Short-sighted Black Woman vs Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae. She is also a former television writer and a victim of sexual harassment.
Mechelle Vinson’s abuse included rape upon threats of death. She was only 19 years old, and a bank teller trainee, when the bank’s manager, a white male, solicited sex from her in exchange for keeping her job. He did so after dinner at a local Chinese restaurant – one with a motel conveniently connected. He was a church deacon, married and father of seven and she accepted his dinner invitation because he had meticulously gained her trust. But when she declined his request for sex, he turned or her and told her he would have her killed. He abused her for four years. He fondled her publicly. He exposed himself after following her to the ladies’ room. He constantly told her that she was nothing but an animal, and he was there to make her understand how nothing but an animal she was. He even raped her on the bank vault floor. Amidst the abuse, she was promoted to bank assistant. But depressed and demoralized, Vinson took a sick leave, whereupon he fired her.
Vinson’s attorney, Verna L. Williams, said her case amounted to sexual slavery. Still, the judge ruled against her saying the sex was consensual, and since she had been promoted she had suffered no discrimination. The decision was reversed by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that a woman could be sexually harassed even if there was no evidence of job discrimination. The bank appealed the reversal to the Supreme Court, but the court ruled in favor of Mechelle Vinson, unanimously.
Many of the extraordinary people instrumental in these cases came out of the civil rights movement. One is Judge Spottswood Robinson III, considered the most influential judge in most of these early cases. It was his ruling that reversed the lower court decisions giving Paulette Barnes, Sandra Bundy and Mechelle Vinson their wins. He also served on the panel responsible for upholding the favorable ruling for Dianne Williams. Prior to his appointment to the bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was one of the civil rights attorneys who helped to argue Brown v The Board of Education before the Supreme Court.
Another name worth mentioning is that of Eleanor Holmes, now congresswoman for the District of Columbia. Active in the civil rights movement since college, in 1970 she represented 60 female employees who sued Newsweek over its policy against employing women as reporters. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Holmes the first female chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and released the first guidelines in 1980 adopted by the EEOC declaring sexual harassment to be sex discrimination.
Instrumental in drafting those guidelines was Catharine MacKinnon, a white feminist attorney and co-counsel with Patricia Barry in the 1986 Supreme Court case of Mechelle Vinson. MacKinnon wrote the appellate brief argument that sexual harassment in the workplace was sex discrimination. In 1978 she authored the ground-breaking book Sexual Harassment of the Working Woman: A Case of Sex Discrimination.
Other cases brought by black women either changed laws or changed the course of history.
Margaret Miller, an NCR machine operator for Bank Of America, was fired because, in her supervisor’s words, she was “’a black chick,’ who had refused his demand for sexual favors.” He once stood at her front door, with a bottle of wine, and declared, “I’ve never felt this way about a black chick before,” promising to get her “off the machines” if she complied. Miller was one of the earliest plaintiffs to include race discrimination as a part of her complaint. The court dismissed her complaint in 1976, citing she obtained a right to sue letter without first availing herself of the bank’s grievance procedure.
Maxine Mumford, an assistant collections manager for the James T. Barnes Company, was asked by her white male boss on her very first day on her job, “if she would make love to a white man, and if she would slap his face if he made a pass at her.” She lost her case in 1977 when the judge rejected the testimony of expert witnesses who would place sexual harassment in a historical context, stating black women are more often harassed. Still, her case inspired a statewide campaign that led to the passage in 1980 of one of the most progressive state laws against sexual harassment in the state of Michigan.
While Pamela Price was a student at Yale University, she was propositioned to have sex in a quid-pro-quo exchange for a better grade on an exam. It was a pivotal case in Title IX history. Nonetheless, she lost as the 1981 ruling did not force Yale to establish grievance procedures to protect students. Still her case galvanized students around the nation to push for grievance procedures on their campuses. Pamela is now an attorney in Oakland, California and has won huge sexual harassment cases for her clients.
Then there was the case of 10-year-old LaShonda Davis, groped and grabbed by a fifth grade classmate until she became suicidal. She came home one day and told her mother, Aurelia Davis, she needed a lawyer. Her mother filed on her behalf, and after a vicious 6-year court battle that landed in The United States Supreme Court, they finally won. Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority opinion in the 1999 bitter 5 to 4 decision. The opposition included Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who scorned the decision as a federal intrusion into public schools where “Little Johnny” was only acting out due to puberty. The ruling made it clear that school districts, in K-12 schools, can be held liable under Federal law (Title IX) from failing to stop severe and pervasive sexual harassment.
Before all of these women was Carmita Wood, the assistant to a highly regarded science professor at Cornell University. Although she never went to court, Wood’s experience was allegedly the impetus for the coinage of the term “sexual harassment” by a group of women that included Lin Farley, then a professor at Cornell University and author of the 1978 book, Sexual Shakedown: The Harassment of Women on the Job.
Wood resigned her job assisting the science professor in 1975 because of debilitating pain due to his persistent harassment. He would stimulate himself in the office, telling her how aroused he was, pinning her against her desk. In one incident he grabbed her to dance at a university function, then proceeded to grope her, in front of co-workers, lifting her sweater, to reveal her bra, as his wife looked on. The university denied her request for a transfer from his department. When she quit, Cornell also denied her unemployment benefits for voluntarily left her job for personal reasons. After publicly speaking out against the professor, she was ostracized and unable to find work. She eventually left Ithaca, New York for Los Angeles, but before doing so, was instrumental in founding a group called Working Women United. The group hosted an event, where many women from various professions, openly spoke about their experiences which included threats, requests for sex in exchange for promotions, and displays of masturbation. It was then clear that sexual harassment was a pervasive problem that crossed all professions.
Given these stories, it is a wonder why sexual harassment was ever portrayed as just a white middle class working woman’s issue. But why were so many early precedent-setting cases by black women? The answer lies In that part of American history with which we have yet to truly come to grips. These cases brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 place the history of sexual harassment law within the context of civil rights history, and hence within the historical context of slavery – a system of patriarchal domination by elite land-owning white men over everyone else. It must be understood, that within this system, the control over black women’s bodies had no rival, as black women not only labored alongside enslaved men, but they also labored as suppliers of sex as well as reproductive laborers to increase the free labor workforce. Professor Adrienne D. Davis, in her 2013 published article, “Slavery and the Roots of Sexual Harassment”, asserts that, “The brutality of slavery’s overt racial repression often causes people to miss its sexual atrocities…neither feminist nor slave scholars have confronted slavery as sexual harassment. In fact, slavery was one of the most extraordinary instances of gender supremacy in U.S. history and one of the first to institutionalize and perfect sexual harassment.”
So, it is no wonder black women were responsible for many of the early cases. These black women rejected the notion that sexual harassment was just another obstacle to overcome or another navigational skill to master in the workplace. Kimberlé Crenshaw, black feminist legal scholar, who popularized the term “intersectionality,” was quoted in a 2017 online article by The Nation Magazine, on this same subject, as speculating that, “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.” Catharine MacKinnon states,“ Black women’s least advantaged position in the economy is consistent with their advanced position on the point of resistance. Of all women, they are most vulnerable to sexual harassment …”
Yet the patriarchy affects us all. It is a system that subordinates women throughout the world. We must embrace that understanding as we acknowledge America’s patriarchy, its roots and it’s emulation by every institution in our nation. Doing so provides clarity and a deeper and more nuanced conversation as to why we have sexual harassment throughout every aspect of our lives.
The need to examine institutions of power as well as power itself is beyond urgent. Our collective reasoning has come to understand that sexual harassment is not just about the sex, but mainly about power. So the question is, “Can we imagine another system where power does not lie in making others feel insignificant; where the symbol of power does not seek ownership of another person’s body?” Our bodies belong to us!! Anything less is horrendous and unconscionable!!
Thankfully, the #Metoo movement has reintroduced this discourse into the mainstream. Yet, there is much to be examined if we are to move towards re-imagining our institutions, towards healing our men our boys, and those victimized by this abuse of power, as well as those so-called feminists, or “hipster racists” who are still often guilty of disbelief when claims of abuse come from women of color, and poorer working class women.
On May 29, 1851, Sojourner Truth, gave her famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” at a woman’s convention in Akron Ohio. It was a classic cry for women’s rights. Sojourner Truth was well aware of the commonality of gender, but she lived the differentiation of race. Those who have not heard her speech would be wise to google and read as her words resonate today and counsel us to honor these courageous women who have earned their position as leaders in this continuing movement. Not to do so is to once again erase and marginalize the accomplishments of black women. These women were making a way out of no way. They were the original silence breakers, the original voices that started a movement. Their stories must be told.