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.” Continue reading

Rev. Mike Smith: Progressive Christianity and a History of Pro-Choice Activism

He may no longer have the beard and shoulder-length brown hair that adorned his head in the 1970s, but Reverend Mike Smith hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for social justice and reproductive rights. For four decades, Smith has been a stalwart pro-choice advocate, and those in Southern Arizona who have worked with him have been inspired by his indomitable spirit.

Smith’s personal connection to the fight for reproductive rights began when he was a seminary student in California. In 1965, he took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery that is considered by many to be the climactic event of the Civil Rights Movement. This experience opened his eyes to the potential clergy have to make the world a more humane place, and for Smith, the struggle for civil rights encompassed reproductive freedom. “Out of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, abortion was just an obvious part of that for me,” says Smith. Continue reading