The Long History of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sexual coercion in the workplace has long been a primary driver of gender inequities.

Anita Hill speaking at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ February. Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia

In the wake of the #MeToo uprising, I picked up a small and dusty mass-market paperback from my bookshelves. Published forty years ago, Lin Farley’s Sexual Shakedown documented women’s pervasive experiences of sexual intimidation and outright abuse on the job. Crucially, she insisted that until we understand the systemic role that verbal and physical sexual assault have played in the workforce, we will not solve the prevailing problems of women’s employment, including unequal pay, lack of promotion opportunities, unjust firing, and continuing gender segregation in the workforce.

Farley’s book is out of print, but no less relevant than it was forty years ago. It reminds us that sexual harassment (a phrase that Farley herself coined) is at the core of gendered discrimination in the labor force — a prime mechanism for maintaining and perpetuating women’s disadvantaged position and a prime driver of persistent gender inequalities. Today, as massive numbers of women call attention to the presence and power of sexual harassment, it is worth recalling the long history of this form of constraint.

A Male Domain

The workplace has long been imagined as a male domain, a place where men demonstrated their masculinity through skill and proved their ability to support and sustain families. To defend their turf and limit competition, male workers adopted strategies of exclusion. In the course of industrialization, white workers and employers sought to marginalize outsiders — the formerly enslaved, immigrants, people of color, women — denying them training and consigning them to the poorest paying and most difficult jobs. Women remain among the longest lasting of the excluded.

Widely shared gendered understandings reinforced the mechanisms of exclusion. The language of religion, nurturance, obedience, and subordination, instilled in boys and girls from a young age, framed the normative boundaries of behavior. The ideology of the home served to regulate workforce participation even where women (often African-Americans, immigrants, and their children) needed to earn, and did earn, wages. Many women rebelled in small and large ways, but in the face of shared assumptions about gendered roles, their protests met with ridicule and dismissal.

To ensure that women remained in their places, laboring men, as well as employers and supervisors, deployed sexual innuendo, demanded sexual quid pro quos, and intimidated women with aggressive sexual commentary about looks, dress, and body language. From the early nineteenth century, working men complained that women who earned were like a millstone around their necks. And women feared the need to earn wages precisely because, outside of family protection, they risked losing their virtue to predatory males.

Effectively barred from most skilled trades and crowded into just a few occupations, women found their wages reduced to bare minimums and their survival in peril. For the poorest women, the situation was infinitely worse. Needing to support families, or lacking families to fall back on, many women were forced to provide sexual favors in order to keep their jobs or to tide them over during periods of unemployment. For their troubles, they were heaped with scorn. “Why cannot a women be considered virtuous if she does mingle with the toilers?” asked a nineteenth-century seamstress, desperate merely to make a living.

While working men benefited from this arrangement, employers also used it to inhibit solidarity, unionization, and collective action. Wielding the threat of female labor, employers kept wages down, and limited male demands for better working conditions. The same threat effectively prevented working-class men from apprenticing or training females. Working men might have been better off than women, but lack of working-class unity kept wages down and restrained the egalitarian ambitions of all workers.

Gradual Change

For years, widely shared ideas about gendered entitlements, reinforced by sexual harassment, convinced women who strayed to stay out of good jobs. Whether hurled by men at women, or whispered as innuendo and insult, sexual harassment, as we now call it, conditioned both male and female workers to perceive the labor force as primarily a male domain.

Most women lived within the constraints, limiting their aspirations and expectations of wage work as if doing so were congenital. Many treated the workforce as a temporary way station and located their economic destinies and their identities in the home. Those who refused — including women of color, who tended to remain in the labor force for longer and worked at some of the worst jobs — butted up against the brick wall of discrimination. Rebels who transgressed the limits fended off verbal and physical assault with humor, turned away with silence, or endured harassing behavior as needed.

This began to change with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, for the first time, forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, religion, and other factors. At first, both the civil servants in charge of enforcing the law and the public at large had a hard time recognizing that the differential treatment of women constituted discrimination. It seemed obvious that men should derive greater benefit from the workplace than women.

The court cases that challenged this notion emerged from the ranks of the labor force. In 1972, Diane Williams, an African-American employee of the US Justice Department, sued to get her job back after she was fired for refusing to sleep with her boss. Her victory set a precedent for barring demands for “quid pro quo” sexual favors. In 1975, Paulettte Barnes — also an African-American woman and also an employee of the federal government — found that her job had been eliminated after she rebuffed her boss’s sexual advances. When she complained, the courts first denied that she had experienced gender-based discrimination, arguing that her refusal demonstrated “an inharmonious personal relationship” that “does not evidence an arbitrary barrier to continued employment based on appellant’s sex.” A federal court reversed the decision, calling the demand for such favors “a discrimination, based on sex.” More cases followed, and by the early 1980s, the point had been made: sexual harassment became a legally prohibited form of discrimination that limited women’s opportunities and restricted their options in the workplace.

But while some women successfully sued for damages and jobs, legal decisions did not change American culture. Sexual coercion in the workforce remained endemic, deeply rooted in gendered relationships and firmly reinforced by normative assumptions about female nature, male breadwinning, and women’s commitments to the home. When Anita Hill detailed Clarence Thomas’s history of sexual harassment before a panel of white male senators in 1991, she was harassed for daring to denounce the crude behavior of a man who would become a Supreme Court justice.

Societal changes worked to remove some blinders. A 1960s women’s movement that called attention to the mysticism surrounding women’s home roles was followed by a dramatic increase in the number of married women and young mothers searching for jobs. Technological shifts also helped. A rapid drop-off in manufacturing jobs and growth in health care, service, and office employment provided incentives for women to look for work. As male employment declined, it rose for women.

By the early 1990s, women made up almost half the workforce, and they wanted to share the rewards of good jobs. Women’s demands for comparable or equal pay, for an end to discriminatory seniority rules and glass ceilings, raised the hackles of men unaccustomed to such competition. Reports of sexual harassment spiked, likely as result of male fear (especially in the trades, but also in managerial sectors) that women were threatening their traditional turf.

At the same time, the two-income family became a fixture. When men no longer expected to support families, their resistance to women’s wage work softened. In the early twenty-first century, women became the primary wage earners in more than a third of two-earner, heterosexual families. Released from the mantra of the home, women began to protest the inequities and daily humiliations more loudly.

A Chorus of Protest

#MeToo is a dramatic expression of these changes. Along with other raised voices in the academy, in the arts, in executive suites, the movement calls attention to the deeply embedded nature of sexual coercion in the workplace, and shines a light on a key mechanism that has long sustained male prerogative and unequal power relationships. The movement exposes workplace divisions that have historically inhibited collective action; it encourages poorly paid waitresses, hotel cleaners, and health care aides to speak out and amplifies their voices.

As the chorus of protest swells, it fuels public protest that bridges racial and generational as well as gender divides. Huge marches, like those organized by women, open the path to a broader critique of the astonishing gap in income and wealth. In the wake of #MeToo perhaps the path to a more egalitarian society will emerge.