A historical look at sexual harassment in the workplace

Final fall, I taught a brand new class known as “#MeToo: A Cultural Historical past” at Miami College. To my shock, greater than half of the 40 college students in this humanities elective had been enterprise majors. A number of had been impressed to take the class by the #MeToo motion. Others enrolled after having already skilled varied types of workplace sexual harassment. Why are younger girls coming into the workforce in the 2020s nonetheless encountering pervasive sexual harassment, and what can we do about it?

To eradicate sexual harassment, we have to perceive the historical context in which it developed. Variety, fairness, and inclusion efforts succeed to the extent that we perceive their place inside an extended historical past of institutional racism, initiating these applications in order to point out we worth them. Why, then, ought to we count on to stamp out sexual harassment with an annual HR coaching fairly than with a deeper understanding of structural sexism in the workplace?

Sexual harassment is a type of intercourse discrimination. That’s what makes it unlawful beneath Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as affirmed by the Supreme Courtroom in 1986 in Meritor Financial savings Financial institution v. Vinson. However, as Yale authorized scholar Reva Siegel explains in her 2003 paper, sexual harassment can also be a social apply, with a really lengthy historical past relationship again so long as girls have labored exterior their very own properties.

All through the nineteenth century, most girls who labored for pay did in order home servants, an employment setting in which girls recurrently endured sexual assault and harassment at the fingers of their employers with little to no recourse. Sexual assault was additionally a foundational aspect of enslavement, and, since the early nineteenth century, Black girls have led the struggle in opposition to harassment and assault. To be more practical, sexual harassment trainings also needs to embody discussions of intersectionality.

Ladies employed in factories most frequently labored in sex-segregated industries, equivalent to textiles, beneath omnipotent male bosses. Sexual assault was rampant there, too, as Progressive Period reformers recurrently identified. However feminine laborers held such tenuous locations in each the manufacturing unit and the labor motion that they didn’t manage in opposition to sexual assault, particularly since girls themselves tended to be blamed for it.

By the early twentieth century, girls entered places of work as secretaries. Beforehand “secretary” had been a male job, kind of like an apprentice, however the job turned feminized because of new gadgets like the typewriter, which gave rise to a complete new class of mundane duties for which girls had been deemed uniquely suited. As anybody who has watched Mad Males is aware of, secretaries additionally usually functioned as “workplace wives” to male bosses—fetching espresso, shopping for anniversary presents, and generally performing consensual and nonconsensual intercourse acts.

Due to many years of feminist activism, sexual harassment turned acknowledged as a type of intercourse discrimination in the mid-Seventies. Catharine MacKinnon’s 1979 e-book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, supplied the authorized framework by which sexual harassment claims ultimately gained in courtroom. Sexual harassment, she wrote, “perpetuates the interlocked construction by which girls have been stored sexually in thrall to males and at the backside of the labor market. Two forces of American society converge: males’s management over girls’s sexuality and capital’s management over workers’ work lives.”

At the similar time and due to the similar feminist advances, extra girls entered high-paying and high-status positions. In response, new types of sexual harassment emerged in the Eighties to maintain girls from these all-male realms. The lusty boss who made undesirable advances on his secretaries enforced their subordinate place, whereas the stockbroker who encountered girls as equals turned to misogynist locker room speak to exclude them.

Sexual harassment coaching movies from the Seventies and Eighties tended to give attention to the handsy boss however nonetheless made clear that sexual harassment functioned as a type of male domination of ladies. More moderen sexual harassment coaching movies, as the regulation professor Elizabeth Tippett argues, typically current harassment as flawed as a result of it makes coworkers uncomfortable. Such perfunctory classes describe sexual harassment as interpersonal, fairly than structural, and as basically about intercourse and civility, not energy and civil rights.

Moreover, the imbalance of home labor at dwelling, which students have termed the “second shift” for working girls, preconditions males to view feminine colleagues by the lens of the subordinate spouse. Who will get the cake for the workplace party? Who takes the minutes at conferences? The identical one that performs the majority of thankless duties at dwelling. Whereas such gender-based discrepancies could appear minor and even trivial, they nonetheless set up that males’s time is extra invaluable than girls’s, and that ladies stay subordinate to males.

A complete 2018 report on sexual harassment by the Higher Life Lab discovered that “sexual harassment is usually pushed by narratives, myths, and norms about girls, males and employees.” Tales about the eccentric genius defend harassers simply as myths about the male breadwinner and feminine homemaker “perpetuate a gender-harassing energy dynamic.” One method to disrupt such myths and the workplaces they create is to switch them with historical narratives about girls’s participation in the labor power and their 200-year-long wrestle in opposition to sexual harassment.

From speaking with the college students in my #MeToo class, I do know that they don’t need employers to position them at the high-profile exhibit desk to draw new prospects, they usually don’t need to have to clarify to employers why doing so is flawed.

As a substitute, they need employers and coworkers to have a primary understanding of the historical forces shaping girls’s work and to ascertain workplaces that equally worth and promote the labors of all workers.


Kimberly Hamlin is an affiliate professor of historical past at Miami College, creator of Free Thinker: Intercourse, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Lifetime of Helen Hamilton Gardener, and the power behind the first-of-its-kind course, #MeToo: A Cultural Historical past. She is the recipient of a Nationwide Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award.