Who coined the term 'sexual harassment'?

There's no realistic start-date for the practice of sexual harassment — it sadly stretches back as far as recorded history. But the term preoccupying the country traces back to Cornell University in the mid-1970s.

Journalist Lin Farley held a "consciousness-raising" session with her female students in a class there on women and work, quizzing them on their workplace experiences.

"Every single one of these kids had already had an experience of having either been forced to quit a job or been fired because they had rejected the sexual overtures of a boss," she recently explained in an interview with On the Media's Brook Gladstone. Farley and colleagues came up with a phrase that for the ugly physical and emotional abuse and pressure women faced on the job. "I thought, well, the closest I can get is 'sexual harassment of women at work.' ... It runs the whole gamut."

Naming the phenomenon was a major turning point; the phrase acted as a bridge among women who had been suffering in isolation.

Farley and other feminists in the 1970s started a chain reaction that would eventually result in significant legal precedents. Decades later, the momentum seems to have built to a watershed moment, with an ever-growing list of powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken and Charlie Rose.

The term made its public debut in 1975, when Farley testified about her work at Cornell before the Commission on Human Rights of New York City. "Sexual harassment of women in their place of employment is extremely widespread," she told the panel, according to a 1975 New York Times report."It is literally epidemic."

Farley shared the results from a questionnaire she had handed out to women at a campus event and to members of a civil service association, the Times reported. Of the 155 respondents, 70 percent had experienced sexual harassment; 92 percent said it was a serious problem. More than 50 percent said nothing was done about the behavior.

A year later, "Redbook" published a survey in which 80 percent of the women responding had experienced sexual harassment on the job, Time reported. The concept had caught.

"It was as if a light had been turned on in a dark room," Farley wrote in a New York Times commentary last month. "The solidarity that women felt for one another was contagious."

Reaction to Farley's 1978 book, "Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job." showed just how much resistance there was. A particularly acid Kirkus Review piece stated, "The way Ms. Farley would have it, men are lurching out of every file drawer to lech after women workers." 

The courts were equally wary. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination on the basis of sex but courts said harassment was a personal matter, not an employment issue; was not a gender-based offense because it could happen to either a man or a woman; and that the law was primarily about racial discrimination.

Attorney and activist Catherine MacKinnon was responsible for much of the legal theory linking harassment and discrimination. "Sexual harassment perpetuates the interlocking structure by which women have been kept sexually in thrall to men and at the bottom of the labor market," MacKinnon wrote in 1979. "Two forces of American society converge: men's control over women's sexuality and capital's control over employees' work lives."

Two landmark cases from the late 1970s, Williams v. Saxbe and Barnes v. Costle, established sexual harassment as sex-based discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

"Naming sexual harassment, and calling it what it is in law — a practice of sex discrimination — has given survivors then and now the sense they are not to blame and not alone, the dignity of a civil rights violation, and a forum for accountability and relief," MacKinnon told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2014.

Lin Farley noted sexual harassment is now on the radar of every employer and corporation. But the term has also been "co-opted, sanitized, stripped of its power to shock, disturb and galvanize." She said the recent wave does signal a change. But she cautioned that the examples have all been high-profile. "If it's a woman on the assembly line ..., she doesn't make headlines and it goes unnoticed and unseen."

A longer version of this article first appeared in The Washington Post.
 

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