Copyright 1997, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
An old adage says: "Good fences make for good neighbors." There is truth to that. Relationships work best when the boundaries are known and understood by all members. Trouble often arises when the limits of acceptable conduct are unclear or have changed in such a way as to leave people uncertain of just what is within bounds. An excellent example of this can be seen in the current concerns over problems of sexual harassment in the workplace. Prior to the 1960's, interactions between working men and women generally followed a particular set of rules which may have been patriarchal and sexist, but were understood by all members. In the 1960's, the women's movement started a process of widespread change in the workplace and in society at large. Women began to move into jobs previously held only by men. Women began to define various male behaviors as no longer acceptable. The old boundaries were no longer valid, and for the next three decades men and women struggled to delineate the new boundaries of acceptable conduct between the sexes in the workplace. In the 1970's, a few courageous writers who risked their professional reputations to break the curtain of silence and expose the most flagrant abuses. In the 1980's, it grew as courts agreed that sexual harassment was unacceptable workplace conduct, until it exploded into national headlines and public awareness with the 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.
The fight against sexual harassment started relatively late in the women's movement, although it did grow out of the overall feminist drive for equity in the workplace. In the early 1960's, feminists concentrated most of their attention on the more blatant problem of women simply not being hired for certain positions at all, or hired to do the same work for significantly lower pay. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and made Eleanor Roosevelt its head. It returned findings of extensive discrimination in employment. This led to the passage of laws mandating equal pay for the same work.
This did not mean that sexual harassment on the job did not exist. Rather, activists found their energies occupied by more pressing issues, much as a person who has no food will not worry about abstract issues of freedom until the more immediate problem of material sustenance is dealt with. First the early anti-discrimination activity eliminated the more blatant forms of discrimination, such as classified advertisements for job openings being divided into "help wanted: men" and "help wanted: women," with all the high-paying jobs being labeled for men while the women's jobs were all menial and domestic work. Then feminists could start dealing with the problem of the more subtle ways in which men let women know that they were not welcome in the workplace.
While the equity feminists were dealing with issues of economic discrimination against women, the radical feminists were calling into question many basic social assumptions about gender roles. The radical feminists argued that it was not enough to get paid the same wage as a man in a fundamentally discriminatory workplace and society. Instead it would be necessary to go to the root of the problem and excise the cancer of sexism from all parts of society. To do that, society would have to change some basic attitudes about women and men. The radical feminists decried what they regarded as a systematic oppression of women through the beauty myth which reduced women to sex objects. One of the more striking demonstrations of their determination to end this pattern occurred at the 1968 Miss America pageant. There, a group of radical feminists dumped items such as girdles and padded bras into a "freedom trash can." The radical feminists also introduced the concept of "the personal is political." According to this idea, one's personal lifestyle choices had a political meaning and could even be a form of political protest.
The vanguard of women who moved into jobs traditionally reserved for men had to confront various forms of harassment. This shows up in accounts gathered in a 1970 article about women and job discrimination. A woman working in an architectural firm found herself dealing with so much hostility and resentment that she finally quit and found a position teaching grade school, although she did not like the work, simply because she found the atmosphere more welcoming in the school.1
Women did not even have a term with which to describe the experience of sexual harassment until 1976. This lack of a term made it difficult to discuss the subject, which prevented the development of a generalized, shared and social definition of the phenomenon. However the lack of a term should not be equated with the nonexistence of the event. In fact, silence is often a reflection of terrible pain and degradation. Like rape and domestic violence, it was a problem which male society swept under the rug, treating it as something simultaneously rare and shameful to the victim.2 Writing in an article originally published in 1979, Gloria Steinem noted that what now was called "sexual harassment" had just been called "life" only a few years earlier.3
Labeling sexual harassment as being "just a part of life" effectively told women that this sort of thing was normal, even a compliment, and that it was their responsibility to cope with it and not complain. Therefore many women of the 1960's and early 70's believed that their feelings of shame and injury were evidence of something wrong with them rather than the behavior they endured. This effect only increased when people responded to women's complaints by telling them, "you asked for it." This told women that they must really want and enjoy those unwanted attentions, which increased their feelings of guilt and alienation.
Such responses also told the perpetrators that their behavior would be tolerated and even supported by their superiors and society at large. Much of the harassment came from men who resented the "intrusion" of women into what had previously been their exclusive sphere. Many men regarded wage-earning women as a personal threat. In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan recognized the discomfort that many men felt about the idea of their wives working. Many men felt that a working wife competed with them for authority in the home and undermined their position as breadwinner and head of household. To protect their status, they employed various guilt-inducing strategies to persuade working wives to give up their jobs and become full-time homemakers. These strategies also served to discourage women from considering going back to work for any reason other than sheer economic necessity, or to have a career instead of merely a job.4
The sexualization of women's presence in the workplace, used as a means to denigrate women's status and contributions as workers, was so commonplace that it was a regular source for jokes. A random survey of 1970 issues of Reader's Digest found at least two jokes which rested upon the presupposition that male bosses and customers enjoyed looking at attractive young female employees. In the first, the joke rested upon the victim's efforts to stop such gazing, while the other was based upon the male reproach at attempts to bar his enjoyment. Furthermore, the latter disregarded the feelings of the women involved as irrelevant.5
Beyond the jokes, the problem of sexual harassment also had very serious real-world consequences. A registered nurse wrote an essay in 1970 about the problems created by sexual division of labor and sexism in medicine and the allied health professions. She regarded doctor-nurse interactions as an ugly game of sexual power in which the patient became the ball. Except in situations of medical emergency, female nurses regularly had to flatter the male egos of the doctors to ensure that their patients received proper care. A nurse who refused to play along with the flirtatious games of an insecure doctor would often find that he retaliated by "forgetting" to write important medical orders until she tracked him down and reminded him. Thus many dedicated nurses found themselves having to choose between protecting their professionalism and self-esteem on one hand and maintaining the best quality of care for their patients on the other.6
Games of sexual favors were also present in blue-collar jobs. In one factory, the older women had all the worst jobs because the male supervisors, who had total power to determine one's work assignment, preferred young, pretty girls. As a result, many of the young women felt they had to compete for the attention of their supervisors through flirtatious behavior. In return the supervisor considered it his right to put his arm around "his" women or pat them on the buttocks in a manner that was simultaneously proprietary and sexually charged.7
Women who expressed displeasure toward the unwanted attentions of male supervisors or co-workers typically were advised to ignore the behavior, with the assumption that the male in question would give up if he were not rewarded with any reaction. A 1975 Cornell University survey found that the old advice to "just ignore it and it will go away" generally did not work, and often had the opposite effect. Three fourths of the time the harassment eventually worsened in spite of the women's efforts to ignore it, and in a quarter of the cases the women who ignored it were penalized with job-related consequences for not responding.8
If women did complain, they frequently received no positive results. In 1975, female police officers in Washington, DC reported various forms of harassment in the course of their work. Many of them would not make official complaints because they feared retaliation from male superiors. Many of them had found it necessary to dispense sexual favors to obtain days off or a good beat. The male partner of one officer pushed her into having sex in the squad car. However Washington police chief Maurice J. Cullinane dismissed the allegations as unsubstantiated gossip because he had no official complaints.9
When the United States Military Academy at West Point admitted its first female cadets in 1976, they were subjected to all manner of sexual innuendoes and comments. One woman woke up one night to find a man putting his hand between her legs. When she complained, she received intense scrutiny of her sexual past. When she left the academy, many of the men acted as though she were making a major scandal out of a trivial incident. The women soon learned that they could not report harassment to the authorities because it would only lead to further harassment.10
Laws existed which could be used as remedies for this sort of activity, although they were generally not applied against such behavior. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, included provisions protecting women's rights. It created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and included prohibitions on employment discrimination based upon sex among the enumeration of prohibited categories in Title VII. However nearly a decade would pass before courts came to regard sexual harassment as a form of discrimination.11
Part of the problem lay the nature of the legal system, which is the product of fallible human beings. Historically, legal systems have been the product of men, and therefore have not been able to set a standard of male accountability for actions toward women. Instead, they have generally reinforced the patriarchal system by indoctrinating men to believe that they are innately superior to women and that this superiority gives them the right to abuse and exploit women. Sexual harassment is not about sex, but about controlling women and bolstering the patriarchal system.12 Therefore, so long as the legal system was dominated by males, it was unlikely that it would apply its own rules to curtail what its members had come to see as one of their essential prerogatives.
In 1972 Congress passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which gave the EEOC the power to enforce Title VII.13 However most of the cases that it handled were centered on racial discrimination. Those few that did concern sexual discrimination were generally of the more obvious variety, involving jobs that were reserved for men only. Even so, things were changing, and a major new thinker would put the issue of sexual harassment into a totally different perspective.
In 1974 Catherine Alice MacKinnon heard about the case of Carmita Wood, who was sexually harassed until she quit her job and then could not get unemployment benefits because she had quit for "personal reasons." MacKinnon resolved to change the law so that the woman would have a legal claim. Although Ms. Wood's appeal was rejected, MacKinnon incorporated a substantial proportion of her notes for the case into her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women. In it she argued that the law was made from a male point of view and failed to take into account the perspective of women, for whom male intrusions are a constant reality, and that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination. MacKinnon first obtained a small judicial success in 1977, when the US Court of Appeals agreed that a woman who was forced to submit to sex as a condition for keeping her job had indeed been subjected to discrimination on the basis of her sex.14
When MacKinnon circulated a draft of her argument that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination based on sex, no court had held that this was true. In fact, several had held the exact opposite. In the time between that and her publication of the final text of Sexual Harassment of Working Women, some courts came to agree with her analyses of the situation.15 MacKinnon saw two distinct concepts of discrimination, which she termed "difference" and "inequality" approaches. The difference approach regarded the sexes as socially as well as biologically different from one another, but regarded as impermissible those distinctions that were based upon false concepts. The inequality approach regarded the sexes as not just different, but socially unequal, and regarded all practices that subordinated women to men as unacceptable. While the difference approach could be useful in correcting the damage of sexism, the inequality approach regarded women's situation as the result of a structural problem which enforced a position of inferiority and therefore had to undergo radical alterations.16 In this argument, MacKinnon took many of the radical feminists arguments and put them to an equity feminist goal of obtaining better working conditions for women.
MacKinnon regarded sexual harassment in the workplace as undermining women's position in society in two ways which were intricately linked together. First, it used a woman's employment as a lever to control her sexuality. Second, it used her sexual identity as a female as a lever to control her economic position. These two elements created a situation in which a woman could not win because everything she did would be faultable. MacKinnon hoped that by obtaining legal recognition that sexual harassment in employment was a form of sex discrimination, women could break the link between material survival and sexual exploitation, which would in turn give women a new level of economic equality and sexual self-determination.17
According to MacKinnon, sexual harassment in the workplace was directly related to the segregation of the American workplace by gender. In her thesis, women were relegated to a particular group of jobs that were regarded as "women's," which meant that the element of female sexuality became implicit in these jobs. Furthermore, most of these "women's jobs" were low-ranking and low-paid, generally under the supervision of men and thus making the women dependent upon the good will of their male supervisors for continued material security. This situation lent an additional element of clout to men who made sexual demands on their female subordinates.18
In MacKinnon's view, much of women's work required the workers to project an "attractive" appearance -- including flattery and deference -- to men in order to maintain their economic position. Women's perceived desirability had powerful economic consequences. Those who did not appear "attractive" to men found themselves unable to obtain well-paying jobs. Thus women found themselves in the bind of having to "ask for it" -- to telegraph receptivity and appear to respond favorably to male sexual overtures regardless of their true feelings. The very qualities that men found sexually attractive in the women they harassed were the real qualifications by which they hired those women.19 (The earlier cited examples of the hospital and the factory workers would seem to bear up MacKinnon's conclusions).
MacKinnon found that women who refused the sexual advances of male supervisors risked their positions. Disappointed men often retaliated by reducing the woman's hours or shifting her to lower-paying tasks. Often this masqueraded as genuine disciplinary action, terming the woman's refusal of sexual overtures as "insubordination" or a poor attitude. When the woman tried to make a sexual harassment complaint, the man would often respond that he was only trying to start a relationship, pretending he was merely asking for a date in a neutral situation instead of sexualizing a highly power-stratified situation for his own benefit.20
MacKinnon pointed out that not all sexual harassment came in the form of overt advances backed with spoken or unspoken threats of economic consequences. Far more pervasive was the situation in which women were subjected to constant sexualization simply on the basis of having a female body. In this situation one or more men in a workplace would subject the women to such incursions of their boundaries as patting, fondling and ogling, but without offering or denying anything directly connected to her job. Faced with putting up with this sexualized work atmosphere or being without a job, most women felt themselves coerced into acquiescence to these daily invasions of their body space.21
MacKinnon concluded her book with a thorough examination of a number of legal cases dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. She saw the development of a legal standard of sexual harassment as having far-reaching societal consequences. By making sexual harassment a legal matter, what had previously been regarded as a private matter between two people would now enter the public sphere. Individual sexual relationships between women and men would be seen as linked with the social construction of gender inequality. If women's sexuality was a means for controlling her access to the economy, sexual relations between men and women in the workplace had to be seen as part and parcel of women's place in the society as a whole.22 Here the principle of "the personal is political" found an application in jurisprudence.
Throughout the 1970's, awareness of gender issues had been growing in society at large. In 1973 the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision had legalized abortion, giving women more power to control their reproductive functions. Also, the 1970's were the years of the struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA had been passed by the House of Representatives in 1971 and the Senate in 1972. The states then had seven years to ratify it. The struggle for ratification came to a head in the late 70's as time began to run out. Only a few states stood in the way of the goal, which made matters all the more frustrating for ERA supporters.
In this atmosphere of heightened awareness of sexual discrimination, some politicians sought to mollify activists with specific legislation to forestall the sweeping changes of a Constitutional amendment. Others worked on legislation to secure some legal position for women even if the ERA were to fail. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed the Civil Service Reform Act, which prohibited sex discrimination in federal employment. At that same time a number of articles, books and scholarly studies of the problem began to appear.23 MacKinnon's book was one of these. Another book that appeared during this period of interest in the problem of sexual harassment was Lin Farley's Sexual Shakedown. Farley approached the matter from an openly feminist position, explicitly linking sexual harassment with patriarchy. She argued that harassing behaviors served to keep women, both individually and collectively, confined to an inferior economic position. Through these patterns men locked in their hold on the material power base of modern society.24
Farley recognized most of the basic modes of sexual harassment, including unwanted stares and comments, repeated propositions for dates, demands for sexual intercourse and outright rape, most of which were accompanied with threats of negative job consequences for refusal. She also noted that sexual criteria often influenced hiring decisions, with women being hired on the basis of attractiveness rather than work skills.25
Farley suggested that the disproportionately high level of female unemployment and shorter duration of employment was in large part due to male sexual aggression. This had a strong negative impact on women's economic position, since many benefits accrue to employees as a result of longer continuous service with a given employer, including raises, seniority and fringe benefits.26 Therefore sexual harassment exacerbated the weakness of women's employment. Because so many women would quit or be fired because of trouble caused by repeated sexual demands, there was a large pool of women continuously rotating through jobs in the "pink collar" sector of the workforce. (However, other factors also contributed to this pattern, such as women taking maternity leaves and the general instability of "pink collar" jobs). This created an oversupply of ready labor, increasing job insecurity among women workers and effectively forestalling any hope of higher wages. Furthermore, long job tenure was generally a prerequisite to having any hope of being heard when requesting better working conditions.27
Farley did recognize the possibility that a man could be the target of harassment if he were working in a position subordinate to a woman. However she also noted that in the one case she had found in which a man was offered a transfer to a better position in return for sex with a supervisor and given harder work when he refused, he did not feel helpless as a result. Rather he felt confident in going over the supervisor's head to approach a male superior when he felt he couldn't take it any more, and thus secured the transfer.28
In the decade after MacKinnon and Farley wrote their studies of sexual harassment, social awareness of women's issues continued to grow. In spite of the swing to conservatism, the 1980's were a decade of slow but steady progress for women. In 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman Supreme Court justice. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro received the Democratic Party's nomination for Vice-President. Although the ERA failed in 1982, the 80's saw the growth of real interest in women's problems such as domestic violence and societal violence against women in general. However, there were also challenges, particularly in the area of reproductive autonomy. In the late 70's and early 80's the "pro-life" crusade against abortion swept into public awareness with demonstrations at abortion clinics. Their rhetoric concentrated on the alleged personhood of the unborn, and thus pitted the woman against the fetus in her womb. The Supreme Court returned a mixed bag of rulings on abortion rights. In 1977 and 1980, they limited government funding of abortion, but in 1983 they reaffirmed Roe vs. Wade and struck down local and state laws limiting abortion. However, in 1989 the Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services decision permitted the use of viability tests, which determined if the fetus had passed certain developmental milestones, and could disallow elective abortions of fetuses beyond a certain point.
In 1980 Illinois became the first state to outlaw sexual harassment of state employees and to publish guidelines and requirements for state agencies to follow in enforcing that prohibition. The federal government took action later in that year when the EEOC drafted guidelines on sexual discrimination. These guidelines broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include general work environment as well as specific requests for sex in exchange for job favors.29 At that time there was no judicial precedent for such an interpretation.30 Part of the problem with this was the sheer difficulty of defining exactly what one meant by a "hostile environment."
The first scientifically rigorous study of sexual harassment was initiated by the Subcommittee on Investigations of the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. This was completed by the Merit Systems Protection Board, which published its final report in March 1981. It was based upon the completed questionnaires of over 20,000 federal employees who were selected through random sampling, and thus the results could be generalized to all federal workers. Nearly half of all female employees reported being the victim of some form of sexual harassment in the workplace in the two years prior to the survey. The most frequent forms of harassment were suggestive comments and looks. Many women were harassed repeatedly and endured multiple kinds of harassment.31
A 1982 survey of 89 registered nurses found that 60 percent of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in the previous year. Most frequently the harasser was a physician. Five years later a survey of all the licensed practical nurses in Boone County, Missouri found that three quarters of the respondents reported incidents of sexual harassment ranging from lewd comments to rape, with the more severe forms coming from patients rather than physicians.32
The United States Supreme Court made its first ruling on sexual harassment on June 19, 1986, accepting the EEOC guidelines which equated sexual harassment with sex discrimination and endorsing the concept of hostile work environment. This case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, which was argued in part by Catherine A. MacKinnon, involved a female employee whose supervisor subjected her to constant sexually-charged gestures such as fondling in front of other employees, as well as coerced intercourse. Justice Thurgood Marshall's opinion for the court, in which he argued that Title VII protected an employee's right to a workplace free of "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult," represented a major step forward for women.33
Yet in many situations, women's complaints of sexual harassment continued to be winked off as "boys will be boys." The major turning point in public opinion came in 1991 with the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice. This involved Anita Hill's testimony before the Senate in regards to acts of harassment allegedly committed by Thomas while they were working with the EEOC. Hill had made her charges of sexual harassment to the Senate Judiciary Committee weeks before she went public. However, its members largely ignored her. Only when National Public Radio reporters leaked word of her complaint did the matter hit the national headlines. This raised serious questions about not only the character of Thomas but also of the Senate, which began to appear more like a sexist old boys' club. To one woman senator, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, it appeared that her male colleagues were not taking the allegations seriously.34
The confrontation between Hill and Thomas became a media spectacle in which each side tried to construct images of itself and the other which would persuade the viewing public of the rightness of its own argument. The Hill camp sought to portray Thomas as a sexual predator whose insensitivity to his female subordinates paralleled the systemic sexual injustice of the American workplace. In their frame of reference, Anita Hill was a gentle champion of women's dignity in the face of corrupt patriarchalism. By contrast, the Thomas camp did its best to portray Thomas as a proper gentleman who defended women against those men who chose to abuse their place of dominance in society, and Hill as a manipulative, vindictive woman who was trying to ruin a man who had failed to let her have her way.35 Since Clarence Thomas denied Anita Hill's allegations in the strongest of terms, one of them had to be lying. Some observers noted that something seemed to be weighing on Thomas's conscience, whether or not he did indeed do the things Hill claimed.36
The manner in which each of the principals in the confrontation behaved during their testimony also served to create an impression in the minds of viewers. Thomas consistently used body language of indignation that corresponded to his verbal anger. Hill's monotonous formality created a dissonance with the anger she was talking about, which left many with the impression that she was lying about the emotional distress she claimed to have suffered.37 Furthermore, Anita Hill apparently was unaware that she was being asked to leave the real world and step into a morality play where she would be expected to play a pre-scripted role. Therefore she continued to act in a manner appropriate to her real-life role as a distinguished law professor who would not allow herself to be intimidated by a pack of senators. This destroyed her credibility among those who expected her to play the role of Decent Woman Wronged. By calmly repeating the words that Thomas had allegedly said to offend her, and saying them without any visible sign of distress, she inadvertently led people to believe that she could not possibly have suffered any distress by hearing someone else say them. After all, the Decent Woman would never soil her lips with such foul words, and particularly not in public.38
The morality-play aspect of the hearings was not lost on the senators. During its questioning of Anita Hill, the Senate committee ran through all the nineteenth-century stereotypes of womanhood, subjecting Hill to an ordeal very similar to that which women have been subjected to at rape trials in which they were the victims, not the defendants. The Senators treated Hill as though she had somehow invited the alleged incidents or had secretly desired sexual attentions which she claimed to be unwanted. They asked her character witnesses whether she brought charges out of vindictiveness or a desire for publicity. Many people suggested that Hill had to be mentally unstable to make such allegations of a respectable man, since in their view only a pervert would do the sorts of things that Hill was alleging. One senator even claimed to have an affidavit stating that Hill had a reputation for becoming hostile when rejected by men to whom she was attracted.39
Other accusations of improper behavior on the part of Anita Hill began to appear. A member of the committee claimed that he was receiving large numbers of letters and faxes with evidence. However, at least one of the people involved, a young man who was a member of a group who enjoyed disrupting Hill's classes, refused to testify or make a sworn affidavit because his father did not want his name used in connection with the matter. No substantial evidence survived of their allegations that Hill had once returned graded papers with pubic hairs in the binders.40 Yet the general public never seriously questioned the veracity of these statements in the way that they did Hill's.
One conservative writer pointed up Hill's checkered employment history as a reason for doubting her testimony.41 This was yet another variant of the old practice of examining the victim's sexual history, but instead looked at her work history. The assumption was that anyone who had a less than perfect employment record had motivation to concoct stories about nonexistent abuse.
Critics also noted how Hill had been strangely passive in the face of Thomas's alleged advances, apparently in an attempt to remain in his good favor. When Thomas had boasted about his sexual prowess, Hill did not immediately respond with distress. Instead she had made some kind of quiet brush-off about people being interested in different things.42
The issue of race also clouded the issues at the Thomas-Hill hearings. More than a few people believed that Hill had betrayed her race by accusing a fellow black of harassment. Yet others believed that no black woman would accuse a black "brother" unless he were guilty, and therefore saw the fact that Hill was black as building her credibility.43
Another question brought up by conservatives to undermine Hill's position was why no other witnesses had come forth to accuse Thomas of harassment. According to them, most harassers are compulsive recidivists who harass again and again.44 Therefore the apparent absence of other accusers would bolster their position that Hill's allegations were fabricated. In fact there were additional witnesses. Four more women were willing to testify that they had heard Thomas make sexual remarks and had seen him display sexually graphic materials in work settings. However, the Senate never called them to testify, leaving the nation to play "he said/she said" with the testimony of Hill and Thomas. Many people continued to wonder just who was telling the truth after the testimony was over.45 In the months following the hearings, many of Hill's supporters became the targets of all manner of disgusting harassment. One had his tenure held up for six months by a vitriolic letter campaign. Another received an envelope of excrement in the mail.46
Although Anita Hill lost in the sense that she did not prevent Clarence Thomas from being confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, she won in the sense that her actions led to a sea change in the society at large. The Hill-Thomas hearings led many viewers to reflect upon the activities in their own workplaces and to ask just what the law had to say about sexual harassment. The nation as a whole came to open a dialog about the issue in a way that had never before occurred. People in management positions began to take seriously the damage done by sexual harassment in the workplace. Men realized that their behavior could have serious consequences, including lawsuits.47 No longer would sexual harassment be covered up, nor would male authority figures be able to "circle the wagons" and side with the alleged harasser.
Sexual harassment suits doubled after Hill made her stand before the Senate. The Navy's Tailhook incident, in which a number of women alleged that they were the subjects of improper advances by naval aviators at the annual Tailhook Convention, gained considerable media attention. In spite of attempts to whitewash it, several high-ranking Navy officers had to resign, including Admiral Frank Kelso, Chief of Naval Operations.48 Corporations began to develop strict policies against harassment. Senator Bob Packwood found himself forced to resign in 1995 after twenty-seven years in the Senate when female staffers complained of his unwanted attentions. Although he claimed that they misunderstood his intentions, his colleagues found him an unaffordable weight in the post-Hill political and social climate.49
The behavior of the male Senators during the hearings may also have led to the victory of several female candidates in the 1992 Senate races. Senator Carol Mosley-Braun of Illinois regarded her own election as being in part the result of her constituents' disgust with the handling of Hill's complaints, resulting in a belief that more women should be elected to the body.50
Not all the response to the Hill-Thomas hearings was entirely positive. An evolutionary biologist argued that the Hill-Thomas business, and thus the whole issue of sexual harassment, had to be taken from an evolutionary perspective, and that in their attempts to treat men and women as fundamentally alike, feminists missed the critical point -- that human behavior is shaped by the evolutionary pressures that rested upon our Stone-Age ancestors. Because of the realities of human biology, reproduction is a much more serious investment of time and energy for a woman than for a man. Therefore a woman has far more at stake when confronted with the persistent efforts of an unwelcome male than a male would have in an analogous situation. Because of this, women are evolutionarily hardwired for a potent aversion to coerced sex, which makes such an attempt particularly distressing for them. This creates a peculiar tension which feminists have struggled to resolve: the more one tries to protect women, the harder it becomes to argue that they do not need special protection by nature and the more one sees women victimized, the stronger the implication becomes that they are naturally victims.51 These twin threads have run through the feminist movement throughout its history, even before the 1960's to the suffragettes of the 1920's, and much of the work of the cultural feminists and equity feminists has involved trying to successfully resolve the contradictory pressures of opportunity and protection.
Noted conservative Rush Limbaugh was also quick to respond to the Hill-Thomas hearings. The controversial talk-show host claimed that Hill's charges were groundless and that the entire event was nothing more than a rumor-mongering attempt to ruin Clarence Thomas. Thus, he approached all his discussions of the Senate committee's treatment of Hill with the fundamental assumption that Hill was lying.52 Discussing the subject of sexual harassment more broadly, he claimed that it was really a line used against conservative men, while the same offenses committed by liberals would be winked at.53 Furthermore, he stated that sexual harassment was often in the eye of the beholder and that feminists were trying to stretch the boundaries of the term to include anything and everything. As an example of this he offered incidents in which various women had called in to him with sexually charged comments but he was not offended by them.54
In the following year Limbaugh went on to state that feminists have defined typical male courting behavior as harassment, and that this trivialized real rape and harassment. In this statement he equated all feminists with the most radical separatist fringe, creating the impression that any woman who was not a traditional wife was a "Feminazi."55 He also claimed that insisting that only a clearly-communicated "yes" could be counted as a positive answer was demeaning to women. According to Limbaugh, this standard implied that women are incapable of handling themselves in any sexual situation that was in any way ambiguous. He also claimed that any definition of rape that was not restricted to an act of physical violence would inexorably blur the delineation between rape, sexual harassment and normal sexual overtures.56 Limbaugh's views were widely received among conservatives, particularly those who longed to return to an idealized past where "men were men and women were ladies."
Warren Farrell, who wrote on men's problems and the necessity to liberate men from destructive masculine stereotypes, took a different view on the matter. Instead of hearkening back to an idealized past, he viewed the problem as one of different paradigms of acceptable interaction. He noted that in practice the difference between courtship and sexual harassment was often the success or failure of the attempt to gain the attentions of a woman. On the subject of hostile work environment, he argued that men make dirty jokes as a way of making other men feel comfortable and included, and thus feel confused when women complain about being offended by such jokes. Furthermore, he argued that much of what women perceive as harassment should really be termed "hazing." Among men, hazing is a way of teaching a man to survive attacks on vulnerable areas and subordinate himself to the team, which is a survival skill in the sorts of jobs where hazing is routinely practiced. Many women complain because they have never been socialized to regard themselves as replaceable parts to be expended for the good of the group. By "protecting" women from this sort of hazing, policymakers instead create a paralyzed work environment and lock women into a permanent child role by never allowing them to earn the respect of the men. This is exacerbated by the fact that men and women have different standards of responsibility, so that what a man sees as "taking responsibility," many women see as "blaming the victim."57
Most significant was Farrell's suggestion for a solution. Instead of arguing for a return to some idealized version of the 1950's, he stated that the way to resolve the problem was by retraining both sexes to share the responsibility for sexual initiative. According to him, women needed to learn to take responsibility for starting a relationship instead of continuing to play the age-old game of being prey for the male predator.58
Both Limbaugh and Farrell reflected very real concerns of American men. After the Hill-Thomas hearings, many men felt that the concern about sexual harassment had put a chill on normal interpersonal relations in the office. Suddenly they found that their friendly overtures toward women could be interpreted as hostile power plays, and at least some of them felt that this was an effort to spoil the fun on the part of prudish women. They did not understand how an action which would be understood as harmless in most situations can produce extreme discomfort in a few particular situations. Most women who were discussing the problem of sexual harassment did not want the men to eliminate these actions entirely, but to become more aware of how context could modulate the implications of their behavior, and to modify it accordingly.59
To many men, the most frightening thing about the whole sexual harassment issue was the constant possibility of a false accusation destroying everything that they had built in a lifetime of effort -- their careers, their reputations, their financial standing, etc. Not realizing that men guilty of serious sexual harassment have done things that they would never dream of doing, these men began to worry that any innocent remark might be misconstrued as a sexual overture. That fear created a serious misunderstanding between men and women, which grew out of the problem of ambiguity. Men would hear women's concern of the constant possibility of sexual violence as saying that all men are rapists, while women would hear the men's concerns about the possibility of false accusations as a claim that women are manipulative liars who use sexual harassment accusations to destroy innocent men.60
Part of the problem rests in the indeterminacy of most human communication -- the symbols (be they words, gestures, or physical objects exchanged by the participants) often have multiple meanings attached to them. The technical term for this phenomenon is polysemy. This is particularly true of the language of love and sex. A single phrase or gesture can be interpreted in multiple ways -- as a courtesy, as a romantic overture, as a demand for sexual compliance, or as an indicator of contempt. Between the sexes, courtesy and courtship are so intricately intertwined that a polite gesture can easily be interpreted as a courting ritual, with disastrous results. Because the modern gender-integrated workplace (in which jobs are no longer divided into "men's" and "women's," but both men and women work together on the same jobs) is so very new in comparison to the age of Western culture's rituals of courtship (which trace back at least to the Middle Ages and the cult of courtly love among the aristocracy), people are only beginning the difficult process of reshaping the ancient patterns to fit within the new.61
As early as 1977, the social consequences of this intertwining of courtship and courtesy were recognized. A man could use his obligation to be kind and to volunteer his help to women as a license, bestowing it selectively to only those women he deemed "attractive." Furthermore, he could use it to create an obligation of gratitude on the part of the woman, and with suitable hints could charge that obligation with an element of sexuality. By contrast, a woman would find herself constrained in her behavior. Through conformity to traditional stereotypes of the retiring, helpless female, she would be able to obtain male help and kindness. In turn, she was obligated to be careful to avoid any lapse in that image, which might instead project a message of sexual invitation marking her as a loose woman.62 As male executives ascended the hierarchy in business and government, the women with whom they associated in business would be more classy in their appearance. This would insert an element of sexual interest into the courtesies he would give and receive in the course of interacting with them.63
According to this theory, the complex interconnection between courtesy and courtship had profound effects in the gender-integrated workplace. Women who attempted to complain about sexual harassment found themselves in a bind because of built-in assumptions about male/female relationships. In the romantic model, men and women are attracted to others who are of roughly equal attractiveness. Slight differences in attractiveness can be made up with extra attention to the more attractive person. Because the woman is considered the "gatekeeper" of sexual intimacy, attempts by the man to "gatecrash" and force her sexual decisions are regarded as a sign of bad treatment and loss of prestige relative to him. By admitting to the evidence of mistreatment, the woman reduces her attractiveness as a woman and thus becomes viewed as somehow deserving of her low status and concomitant bad treatment.
One writer even suggested that this system of interactions had played a particular role in the Hill-Thomas hearings. As Hill testified about the abuse she had endured, she unwittingly undermined her prestige and attractiveness in the eyes of the American public. Thus it became increasingly easy to doubt her testimony or her choices. Some viewers saw it as a situation in which she had endured bad treatment in order to obtain career advancement in spite of low prestige, then reneged on the deal by turning on Thomas after she had obtained her secure professional position.64
Recent writers addressing the issue of sexual harassment have put a strong emphasis on the importance of considering the context of the social situation and the individuals involved when determining whether a specific action should be considered harassing. A behavior that is acceptable to one person may be offensive to another. Even flattering comments about a person's appearance can become a form of put-down by implying that the role of that person's intelligence, professionalism and competence are trivial in the attainment of her position.65
One male writer, writing for other men, pointed out the importance of genuine communication with women to learn just where their personal boundaries lay, to avoid crossing the line between acceptable courting behavior and sexual harassment.66 Responding to the concerns of men who felt afraid to speak to women lest they be accused of sexual harassment, a woman writer explained that the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate talk was not incredibly mysterious. While at work, women want to be complimented on their performance as employees, not their appearance, because the latter suggests that they got their positions in the company for their looks instead of their abilities as workers.67
Many writers pointed out that it is critical for both sides to appreciate that the meaning the listener understands is what really determines the meaning of the communication, not what the speaker may have intended. Suzette Haden Elgin, a linguist specializing in communication failures and their solutions, illustrated this principle with the example of a person saying "Here's a rose for you," but the recipient understanding it as "Here's a frog for you," and reacting with predictable disgust and horror. The speaker's intention is irrelevant to the understanding, and the recipient's behavior is based not upon the intended rose but the understood frog.68
Elgin also argued that part of the problem in determining what is acceptable is that men and women have different ideas of what specific behaviors constitute violence. Both men and women agree that violence is a deliberate, intense use of force However men tend to regard such an action as violence if it is avoidable, while women regard it as violence if it is harmful. Generally this reality gap does not interfere with communication, since actions one group or the other labels as "violent" are often both avoidable and harmful. However, difficulty arises when the action fulfills only one criterion, so that only the men or only the women regard the action as violent. This leaves the other side bewildered and thinking that the offended side is being ridiculous or oversensitive.69
Deborah Tannen, another linguist looking at sexual harassment in terms of a breakdown in communications between the sexes, noted that it is part of Western society's cultural heritage that a man "conquers" a woman and subdues her as part of sexual relations. This cultural baggage continues to color the thoughts of even those people who no longer explicitly subscribe to that script of male-female relationships. Thus, every woman carries an element of fear in the face of male sexual aggression in a way that men do not when the situation is reversed.70 Because of the way women have been socialized, they find a situation which reminds them that they are sexual creatures very compromising. Therefore, they will perceive sexual intimidation in comments which a man would laugh off or regard as a compliment on his prowess. Even fleeting glances by men toward a woman's breasts are likely to be interpreted as a message of "I'm thinking about your sex rather than your work or your brains."71
Tannen found far-reaching implications in this difference. Many men do not believe that sexual harassment has occurred unless the offender has made a physical overture, whereas most women regard verbal acts as harassing. Women are more sensitive to verbal assault because they live their lives constantly under the shadow of the possibility of male violence against them. Rape is the most extreme form of it, but women are painfully aware of the violent undercurrent that runs through so much male sexuality, violence that is likely to be turned on them with agonizing results. When joking about sex, many men use physical metaphors like "throw" or "knock down," even when they do not intend to literally attack the woman in question. Part of this grows from a male resentment of the power a woman's sexual attractiveness has over him, which he perceives as putting him in a one-down position. Thus he phrases his talk of desire in terms that give the appearance that he will have complete control of the interaction. But to a woman's ears the implication of violent assault is terrifying.72
People have pointed out that women can harass men as well. Tannen countered that male and female harassers pursue different strategies in relating to their victims. Generally male harassers will simply overpower their victims, taking what they want. They use overtly sexual language to force their sexuality into the linguistic space, and when they follow up with physical action, they often grab, pinch and push. They count on their victim's smaller stature and non-violent upbringing to prevent effective resistance. By contrast, female harassers tend to seduce their victims, luring them with compliments and suggestive behavior rather like the nursery rhyme that begins, "Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly." They expect their victim's emotional entanglement to prevent him from extricating himself from the compromising situation.73
Both Tannen and Elgin noted that the communication gaps between men and women went beyond strictly sexual communications. Men and women use different communication styles, which can cause difficulty when the conventions are not understood. Men typically jockey for status and try to avoid taking the one-down position in verbal interactions, while women strive to maintain an appearance of equality and take into account the feelings of the other people in the interaction. Thus women often perceive the men as hostile and arrogant, while the men perceive the women as lacking confidence and competence.74 The mismatch of conversational styles can have disastrous results, particularly when it involves humor. Men typically use teasing and mock-hostile attacks to be funny, while women generally prefer self-mockery. Because women often interpret men's joking attacks as genuine hostility, an attempt to get along often turns into deep division. This is particularly true when the jokes take a sexual turn.75 Even in ordinary conversation, men's styles can be misinterpreted by women, with disastrous results. Many men will use aggressive language, including verbal attacks, not as a means of doing harm, but as a sort of sport. The attacks are not meant personally, but rather as friendly sparring. Each of the men in the exchange is attempting to gain points, yet everyone is having a good time. A woman unfamiliar with this sort of pattern will often find such behavior alarming when she encounters it in the workplace.76 Men also use ritualized antagonism in coming to a joint conclusion, but women often feel that they are arguing personally. Because women are generally socialized to avoid and smooth over conflict, they often give way when they are really expected to hold their ground. When they do fight back, they often fear that they have alienated the person they spoke against.77 These sorts of misunderstandings can lead women to feel that they have been harassed when the men did not intend it in that manner. If the women file complaints, the men often feel unjustly accused, lending credence to the stereotype that women file trivial complaints to ruin innocent men.
Tannen also found that conversational rituals or their absence can also produce a stumbling block for communication. Women often use ritual apologies as a conversational smoother, not to accept blame for a problem but to restore balance in the conversation by acknowledging that something is amiss. However many men are likely to perceive this as accepting the one-down position in the exchange and decide that the woman is weak. In fact, many men will go to great lengths to avoid apologizing, even when they have indeed committed a wrong. This often leaves the impression that such men are abrasive and arrogant.78
Recently a number of people have tried to use these discoveries about differences between male and female speech to show that men do not dominate women, but merely misunderstand them. However, Tannen countered that one must remember that the consequences of style differences have profound effects upon the members of stigmatized groups. Those who have the power to enforce their interpretations of an interaction will support their own styles of interaction. This is particularly true when the interaction involves the attempt on the part of a member of a stigmatized group to obtain a benefit such as a job from a member of an empowered group with whom there is a style mismatch.79 If women are considered a stigmatized group under this definition, then the misunderstandings between men and women gain additional significance.
Yet even this form of resistance shows a certain amount of progress, since it does not attempt to deny that problems exist in communication between men and women. Instead it tries to minimize the severity of the problem by diminishing the element of intent. This parallels the defenses put forth by men accused of sexual harassment. Since they can no longer deny that sexual harassment exists and is injurious to women, they instead will often argue that their case is one of misunderstood friendly overtures rather than deliberate attacks. Of course their abuse of this defense as an excuse in turn causes harm for men whose good intentions genuinely were misunderstood.
Although the process of re-evaluating the boundaries of sexual harassment remains incomplete, the accomplishments cannot be denied. The 1960's vanguard of women braved the hostility of many men just to secure the right to work in many jobs that had been previously reserved for men. Their travails and those of their sisters in traditional feminine jobs attracted the attention of a new breed of activists in the 1970's. These women saw the situation as unacceptable and resolved to find legal remedies against it. At first MacKinnon and the other pioneers of the fight against sexual harassment met with resistance and even ridicule. But their efforts began to reap rewards in the 1980's, culminating in the 1991 Senate hearings in which Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas. The problem of sexual harassment became a public issue and society as a whole confronted it, struggling to come to grips with the necessity to develop new boundaries. Although it took decades to come about, the present-day social awareness of sexual harassment is in part a consequence of the struggles of the women's movement of the 1960's.
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Copyright 1997, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel
This paper was originally written as part of a course in the history of the protest movements of the 1960's, taught by Dr. Robbie Liebermann of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
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