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

Let’s Talk Contraception: Contraceptive Changes on the Horizon

MicrogestinThe Affordable Care Act has undeniably improved women’s ability to receive preventive care that includes contraception. Insured women are now able to have any FDA-approved birth control provided to them at no cost as part of their preventive health care. Access to contraception has been shown time and again to improve the lives of women, their children, and their families by allowing them to plan and space pregnancies, decreasing maternal and infant mortality and also increasing their economic stability.


Some states are taking steps to make birth control less expensive and more convenient to obtain!


The Affordable Care Act has also undeniably opened up a Pandora’s box of contraception-related issues.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states that “contraception is an essential part of preventive care and all women should have unhindered and affordable access to any FDA approved contraceptive.” In their yearly report, “Access to Contraception,” they advocate 18 recommendations, which include:

  • over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives that is accompanied by insurance coverage or some other cost support
  • payment coverage for 3- to 13-month supplies of birth control to improve contraceptive continuation

In the United States, statistics show that half of all pregnancies are unintended. A recent study has shown that if women who were at risk for unintended pregnancy were able to easily access effective birth control (such as the Pill) at low cost and without a prescription, their rate of unintended pregnancy would decrease significantly. Continue reading

From Phoenix to Washington — And the World: A Short History of the Transgender Pride Flag

Monica Helms (right) holding up her Transgender Pride Flag

Monica Helms (right) holding up her Transgender Pride Flag

November is the month for transgender pride and awareness events. In some communities, it’s one day in November: One of the most widespread observations is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), which is held every November 20. In others, TDOR is part of a longer observation, Transgender Awareness Week. Elsewhere, the whole month is devoted to the theme. Noteworthy, too, have been grassroots efforts organized at TransParentDay.org to make the first Sunday in November a celebration of transgender parents.


Phoenix, Arizona, is the birthplace of the Transgender Pride Flag.


However they’re timed, these events share common themes. They are occasions for transgender people and their allies to remember victims of transphobic violence. They are opportunities to assert rights, dignity, and a place in society — to demand the visibility and respect that transgender people are too often denied.

Transgender visibility has also been strengthened by a powerful symbol that first made its appearance at the Phoenix Pride Parade in 2000. Since the creation in the 1970s of the rainbow flag, a symbol shared broadly by LGBTQ people, several newer flags have appeared, each representing sexual and gender identity groups within the LGBTQ community. In 1999, Michael Page, the creator of the Bisexual Pride Flag, suggested to longtime Phoenix resident Monica Helms that she create a similar flag for the transgender community. Continue reading

Six Things Arizona Is Doing Right

pillflagThe Arizona legislature has been an eager participant in the War on Women, rolling back women’s health and reproductive rights with a number of measures we’ve covered on this blog. Then there was Senate Bill 1062, the bill that would have given a green light to discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and many others had it not been for Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto in February. It’s easy to feel embattled in times like these, which is why a look at what Arizona is doing right might be in order.

Here’s a look at six recent news items from around the state to remind us that we have some victories to count — not just losses.

1. Moving Forward with Medicaid Expansion

Last year, against opposition from other Republicans, Gov. Brewer signed into law a Medicaid expansion that was expected to make 300,000 additional Arizonans eligible for coverage. Brewer stated that the expansion would also protect hospitals from the costs associated with uninsured patients and bring additional jobs and revenue to the economy.

That expansion took effect on the first of the year, and by early February the Associated Press was reporting that already close to 100,000 Arizonans had obtained coverage. At Tucson’s El Rio Community Health Center, the change has made them “very, very busy,” according to Chief Financial Officer Celia Hightower. El Rio used a recent grant to hire six application counselors — in addition to five who were already on staff — who could help patients understand their eligibility and guide them through the process of obtaining coverage. Pharmacist Sandra Leal reports that they’re now seeing patients receive diabetes care they previously couldn’t afford — and no longer having to choose “between paying for the doctor and paying for their grocery bill.” Continue reading

“That’s Just Your Sickness Talking”: Psychiatry, Homophobia, and the Turning Point in 1973

John E. Fryer, MD, dressed as Dr. H. Anonymous at the 1972 APA conference

John E. Fryer, MD, dressed as Dr. H. Anonymous at the 1972 APA conference

It wasn’t his high blood pressure or high cholesterol that caught Matthew Moore by surprise when he went to his new physician earlier this year. Moore, a Southern California man in his mid-40s, described those conditions as “normal for me.” Nor was Moore, who is openly gay, shocked to see that his doctor noted his sexual orientation on his medical paperwork — until he saw the way that she noted it.


“The sickness label was used to justify discrimination, especially in employment, and especially by our own government.”


Listed as a chronic condition, Moore noticed “homosexual behavior” on his paperwork, followed by the medical code 302.0. As unsettling as the notation already was, Moore decided to research what the code meant, and he was left wondering how the diagnosis could happen today: “When I look[ed] up code 302.0 [I learned that it meant] sexual deviancy or mental illness, and that code has been removed or suggested heavily not to be used since 1973.”

“My jaw was on the floor,” Moore recounted. “At first, I kind of laughed, [and then] I thought, ‘Here’s another way that gay people are lessened and made to feel less-than,’ and then as I thought about it and as I dealt with it, it angered me,” he told a local news station.

Moore complained to his physician, and, dissatisfied with her response when she defended the diagnosis, he wrote a letter to the parent company of the Manhattan Beach office where his physician practiced medicine. Moore received a written apology and a refund of his co-pay.

Moore’s story made the news earlier this year because of how anomalous — and appalling — it was. But prior to 1973, Moore’s experience would have been almost inevitable, unless he took precautions to keep his sexual orientation as private and secret as possible.

Until a decision by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) changed the course of history 40 years ago this Sunday, on December 15, 1973, gay and lesbian people couldn’t escape the perception that their sexuality was a sickness. Continue reading

When Metaphor Becomes Reality: The Abortion Battle and the Necessity of the FACE Act

PP entrance

Clinic escorts at a Washington, D.C. Planned Parenthood. Photo: Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño via Flickr

Serving as the medical director of a reproductive health clinic made Dr. George Tiller a lightning rod for constant vitriol — and more than once a target of violence. Picketers routinely gathered outside his clinic in Wichita, Kansas, a site of their protests because it provided abortions, including late-term abortions. In 1986, Tiller saw the clinic firebombed. Seven years later, in 1993, he suffered bullet wounds to his arms when an anti-abortion extremist fired on him outside the property. Finally, in 2009, he was fatally shot while attending worship services at a Wichita church.


Anti-abortion extremists can create life-threatening scenarios for those who seek reproductive health care.


In the wake of Dr. Tiller’s death, many reproductive rights advocates argued that his assassination could have been avoided. The shooting was not the first time his murderer, 51-year-old Scott Roeder, broke the law.

Roeder could have been stopped prior to the shooting under a federal law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which was enacted in 1994 — 19 years ago this Sunday — to protect the exercise of reproductive health choices. The FACE Act makes it a federal crime to intimidate or injure a person who is trying to access a reproductive health clinic. It also makes it unlawful to vandalize or otherwise intentionally damage a facility that provides reproductive health care.

Roeder’s ideology was the root of his criminality. Roeder subscribed to a magazine, Prayer and Action News, that posited that killing abortion providers was “justifiable homicide.” Roeder also had ties to a right-wing extremist movement that claimed exemption from U.S. laws and the legal system. Continue reading

The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Part 2

Last month we featured Part 1 of our interview with historian Stephanie Coontz about her book A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012). A Strange Stirring looks at the history of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which has been widely regarded as one of the most influential books of the last century.


“Work is still organized on the assumption that every employee will have a wife at home to take care of life.”


Published 50 years ago in February of 1963, The Feminine Mystique was Friedan’s response to the unease and dissatisfaction that she learned was common among American housewives at the time. Friedan hypothesized that the root of their unhappiness was their confinement to domestic roles, which prevented them from finding meaning and identity outside of their roles as homemakers, partners, and caregivers. Entering the workforce and professions, Friedan believed, would provide them the fulfillment they were missing.

Although social conservatives blamed The Feminine Mystique for sowing marital discontent, that was never Friedan’s intention. As Stephanie Coontz explained in A Strange Stirring, Friedan’s book “made a point of not criticizing husbands for their wives’ unhappiness.” Instead, it suggested that “marriages would be happier when women no longer tried to meet all their needs through their assigned roles as wives and mothers.” In Part 1 of our interview, Coontz discussed the accuracy of Friedan’s insight, noting that “today divorce rates tend to be lowest in states where the highest percentage of wives are in the labor force. Marriages where men and women voluntarily share breadwinning and caregiving tend to be very high quality.” Continue reading