The Roots of Resistance: The Social Justice Context of Sexual Harassment Law

wga_posterEarlier this year, Scandal star Kerry Washington brought sexual harassment into the spotlight with her portrayal of the embattled Anita Hill in HBO’s Confirmation. The movie dramatizes how Hill herself made sexual harassment a topic of high-profile, nationwide debate when she came forward to speak out against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Hill’s testimony gave resolve to others who had experienced similar treatment in the workplace, ushering in a 40-percent increase in the number of sexual harassment claims filed with state and federal agencies in 1991 and 1992. But as inspiring as her testimony was, Hill stood on the shoulders of brave women before her who confronted sexual harassment and helped advance a body of law that makes workplaces, schools, and other institutions safer spaces. That body of law now protects people against “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission summarizes.


The fight against sexual harassment is closely connected to the long struggle for freedom among African Americans.


The breakthrough cases in sexual harassment law provide a revealing look at the short and surprising history of the battles, both in and out of court, that brought the issue into public consciousness. It is a history that shatters popular perceptions of feminism’s second wave and brings to light an overlooked dimension of another fight for social justice: the Civil Rights Movement.

Two Landmark Legal Decisions

When Mechelle Vinson applied for a job at Capital City Federal Savings in 1974, she was only 19 years old, but she had already had part-time jobs at several businesses around Washington, D.C., including a shoe store and an exercise club. For Vinson, lessons in supporting herself had come early. A strained relationship with her father had led her to drop out of high school and make repeated attempts to run away from home. She got married at “14 or 15,” because, as she recounted later, “I thought if I get married, I don’t have to go through problems with my father.”

Vinson was offered a teller position at Capital City Federal Savings, thanks to her cash-handling experience with past employers. Her position there became a much-needed source of income while her short-lived marriage took a turn for the worse, forcing her to look for an apartment and start over on her own.

During all of her difficulties, Vinson’s manager, a married father of seven named Sidney Taylor, made it a point to “put on an air that he cares.” Vinson said that he encouraged her to speak with him about any of her problems, either professional or personal. That’s how Taylor learned of Vinson’s troubled past — and the $120 she was short when she got her own apartment. Taylor gave her the money she needed, adding that paying him back was neither necessary nor expected.

According to Vinson, Taylor’s helpfulness soon became the pretext he used to pressure her to have sex with him. After she got her apartment, she accepted his offer to have dinner with him after work one night. That same evening, he propositioned her, allegedly telling her, “I have been better to you, more than your husband.” It was a sign of things to come.

Vinson eventually brought suit against the company, which later became Meritor Savings Bank, alleging that Taylor’s propositions and unwelcome advances continued in the workplace — and that she was dismissed from her employment after a prolonged period of difficult and stressful circumstances related to his coercive behavior.

Vinson’s case took years to resolve as it went through a district court, a court of appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. It led, finally, to one of the landmark decisions in sexual harassment law. On June 19, 1986 — 30 years ago this coming Sunday — the Supreme Court ruled on Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. The court’s decision established that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act covered not only discrimination that results in economic injury but also “the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women” in the workplace, including “psychological aspects of the workplace environment.” It was the first successful use of Title VII in a sexual harassment case in the Supreme Court.

In the lower courts, the first time Title VII was used successfully in a sexual harassment case was in Williams v. Saxbe, which was decided on April 20, 1976. The plaintiff in the case, Diane Williams, was dismissed from her position at the Department of Justice after she filed a complaint about unwanted sexual advances from her supervisor. After she brought her complaint to the courts, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey ruled in her favor, awarding her $19,147 in compensation.

Williams’ case was decided at a time when the term sexual harassment was just gaining currency. It was coined the prior year by a group of activists at Cornell University, who organized a speak-out to support the cause of a former colleague, Carmita Wood, who had endured repeated, unwelcome physical contact from her supervisor. As Wood’s case drew more attention, it inspired others at Cornell to come forward and share their own stories, implicating even more supervisors in sexual harassment complaints. Like Wood, they described threats and other pressure to give sexual favors.

What was reported at Cornell was not unusual. Sexual harassment was so ubiquitous that a 1976 survey by Redbook found that 80 percent of respondents had experienced it on the job. But the problem was no longer nameless, and — as Williams v. Saxbe demonstrated — it would no longer elude the courts.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Fight Against Sexual Harassment

Mechelle Vinson and Diane Williams shared something in common other than their important roles in the history of sexual harassment law: They were both African American. What’s more, they were just two among several black women whose sexual harassment cases shaped the legal landscape around the issue. In a 2004 article in the journal Feminist Studies, legal historian Carrie Baker gave a rundown of the precedents that black women have helped set in sexual harassment law: Paulette Barnes had the first successful case in a federal court of appeals. Sandra Bundy did the same at the appellate level in a hostile environment case. Pamela Price won the first case involving harassment in an educational setting, and Willie Ruth Hawkins did the same for co-worker harassment. A case brought by Maxine Munford led to the one of the first state laws against sexual harassment in 1980.

Carmita Wood, whose case at Cornell launched the activist movement against sexual harassment, was African American as well. History doesn’t make clear where coincidence ends and a cohesive narrative begins, but Baker suggests that because “[r]acist and sexist stereotypes melded in the harassment directed toward African American women,” they had “a particularly clear understanding of the discriminatory nature of sexual overtures in the workplace.” Consequently, “these women did not mistake sexual harassment for harmless flirtation.”

Baker adds that, as African-American women, many of these plaintiffs had backgrounds in civil rights and that their “understanding of civil rights concepts and processes” may have prepared them for their fights against sexual harassment. Diane Williams, for example, worked in the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, in a role that involved addressing many of the racial tensions of the time.

However, Baker’s research, showing that the Civil Rights Movement informed the fight against sexual harassment, only tells half of the story. Struggles for women’s rights had also played a considerable role in advancing the Civil Rights Movement. Historian Danielle McGuire of Wayne State University devoted 12 years to researching how the fight for the safety, dignity, and bodily autonomy of black women helped propel the struggle against segregation and racial discrimination in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 2010, McGuire published At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power, which takes the reader through the early activism of Rosa Parks. Years before sparking the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 — when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and move to the back of the city bus she was riding — Parks was elected branch secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As branch secretary, beginning in late 1943, Parks traveled through much of Alabama, investigating cases of intimidation, beatings, and murder — acts of racist violence that enforced the South’s system of segregation. But it was her work combating another form of terror — sexual assault — that made Parks ascend among civil rights leaders of the time.

In 1944, a group of white men in Abbeville, Alabama, gang-raped a mother and sharecropper named Recy Taylor. After investigating the incident, Parks organized the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, a campaign that drew international attention and was described by the Chicago Defender as the “strongest campaign for equal justice in a decade.” Amid the rallying for her cause, Taylor’s case went before an all-white, all-male jury — in a trial that ultimately let the six men walk free.

Rosa Parks during her arrest in 1956

After her arrest in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, Parks was arrested again in 1956, during the city-wide bus boycott that followed.

Although the committee’s efforts didn’t produce an indictment, they created a network that could respond to other cases like Taylor’s — cases which were all too common at the time. Parks documented numerous incidents of sexual assault during her tenure at the NAACP. Five years after the Taylor case, in 1949, Parks was rallying for justice for another rape victim, this time a black woman who had been raped by two Montgomery police officers. In 1951, Parks was behind efforts to bring justice to the case of Flossie Hardman, a black teenager who was raped by Sam E. Green, the white owner of a local grocery store. It was that campaign that set an important precedent for the Civil Rights Movement. A boycott of Green’s business sent the store into financial free fall — and sent a message that rape would not be tolerated. Following its success in the Hardman case, the tactic would be used again, beginning in 1955, to end segregated seating on Montgomery’s buses.

These sexual assaults occurred in an atmosphere in which black women were frequently subjected to degrading language and treated as sexually available to white men — an atmosphere of what we now understand as sexual harassment. McGuire quotes John McCray, the publisher of one of the South’s most influential black newspapers of the time, who said it was a “commonplace experience for many of our women … to be propositioned openly by white men. You can pick up accounts of these at a dime a dozen in almost any community.”

Sexual harassment of black women was so pervasive that it came from Montgomery’s bus drivers as well — and for many black women, that harassment was an additional reason to participate in Montgomery’s bus boycott. Bus drivers frequently subjected black women to racialized and sexualized insults such as “heifers,” “whores,” and “ugly black ape.” A bus rider named Ferdie Walker recalled a driver who routinely exposed himself to her.

Although they were overshadowed by public leaders such as Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., who stepped in after Parks’ arrest for refusing to comply with segregated bus seating, women were instrumental in making the boycott a success. To sustain months of boycotting, black women formed a network of 29 drivers and route coordinators who provided former bus riders with 32 designated carpooling sites. After more than a year, the boycott finally ended. A simultaneous court battle had resulted in a ruling that segregation on Montgomery’s buses was unconstitutional.

The Legacy of Two Struggles

The research that Danielle McGuire and Carrie Baker have presented about the fights against racial discrimination and sexual harassment belie notions that the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism were on independent trajectories. The two were intertwined and made stronger by the connection.

The history of black women’s resistance against sexual assault — and, later, coercion and hostility in the workplace that we understand today as sexual harassment — challenges the common criticism that second-wave feminism was by and large a white, middle-class movement. African-American women were, in fact, an integral part of the movement, and their participation must not be written out of its history.

June 19, or the holiday known as Juneteenth, has been celebrated as the day marking the emancipation of African Americans from slavery in the American South. It commemorates an 1865 order by Major General Gordon Granger, issued at the end of the Civil War, proclaiming that “in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” June 19 can also be celebrated for another reason: the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson — and the fight against sexual harassment that is so closely connected to the long struggle for freedom among African Americans.

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