A decade before actress Alyssa Milano prompted millions of women to share their stories of sexual harassment on social media using #Me Too, activist Tarana Burke, founder of Just Be Inc., pioneered a “Me Too” campaign to encourage women-of-color sexual-assault survivors to support each other by sharing their stories.
Burke was first. But thanks to name recognition, the rise of Twitter, and whiteness, Milano got most of the credit (which she later shared with Burke). Of greater concern, at least to me, is where we go from here. As Burke pointedly told Ebony, her 2007 effort “wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow.”
How can the millions of women who have bravely shared their stories—and the millions more who aren’t on Twitter or don’t wish to broadcast their pain on social media—keep this campaign from disappearing overnight? One answer lies in remembering how sexual harassment became a crime in the first place. Just as most people, including me, didn’t know until recently that Burke started “Me Too,” many aren’t aware that the earliest pioneers of sexual-harassment litigation were black women inspired by the civil-rights movement.
In 1975, nearly two decades before Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandeis, testified that she was sexually harassed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Carmita Wood resigned from her job at a Cornell University lab. Wood was experiencing physical problems due to the stress of interacting with her boss, who would often pin her against her desk with his body and describe how aroused he was. She tried to transfer, but her transfer was denied, so she quit and filed for unemployment benefits. The benefits were denied on the grounds that she had left her job “voluntarily” and for “personal reasons.”
With activists from Cornell’s Human Affairs Office and civil-rights lawyers like Eleanor Holmes Norton—who was, at the time, NYC’s commissioner of human rights—Wood helped found Working Women United. The group held speak-outs to illuminate the scope of a problem newly called sexual harassment, but it didn’t stop there. Norton drafted an anti–sexual harassment clause for affirmative-action agreements, a precursor to the sexual-harassment guidelines she would issue in 1980 as chair of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Several years after Wood was denied her benefits, the on-the-job treatment of Diane Williams, a public-information specialist at the US Justice Department; Paulette Barnes, a payroll clerk at the US Environmental Protection Agency; Sandra Bundy, a vocational rehabilitation specialist at the DC Department of Corrections; and Mechelle Vinson, an employee of Meritor Savings Bank, led to several landmark sexual-harassment lawsuits. Williams and Barnes were both fired after rejecting their bosses’ sexual advances. Bundy was harassed by multiple male supervisors. When she complained to her supervisors’ boss, he reportedly said, “Any man in his right mind would want to rape you,” and suggested Bundy have sex with him. Williams’s case gave rise to a 1976 ruling that quid-pro-quo sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination. Barnes’s case led to a 1977 appeals-court ruling that sexual harassment is sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. And Bundy’s case led to a 1981 ruling that established that it’s possible to bring a sexual-harassment claim under Title VII even if the harassment does not result in job loss.
Vinson, the bank employee, claimed that for three years, beginning when she was 19 years old, her supervisor harassed her constantly and raped her repeatedly during work hours, occasionally in a bank vault at work. Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson was the first sexual-harassment case to reach the Supreme Court. In 1986, citing Norton’s EEOC guidelines, the Court ruled unanimously that sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Besides black plaintiffs, what these cases have in common is that they helped define sexual harassment as a civil-rights violation that harms women as a group, not a personal problem. (Feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon has argued that sexual harassment is group-based discrimination that harms all women economically by reinforcing their subordination in the workplace.)
Because sexual exploitation has been an element of racism for black women from slavery to the present, some scholars have suggested that they were quicker than white women to see sexual harassment as a form of discrimination. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw has speculated, “racism may well provide the clarity to see that sexual harassment is neither a flattering gesture nor a misguided social overture but an act of intentional discrimination that is insulting, threatening, and debilitating.”
Holding public-sector jobs may have given some of these women a stronger sense of their rights as workers, and many were influenced and supported by the civil-rights movement. An article in the spring 2004 issue of Feminist Studies described civil-rights attorney and judge Spottswood Robinson III as “the single most influential federal judge in the development of sexual harassment” law. Robinson, one of the lawyers who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, issued precedent-setting rulings in favor of Barnes, Bundy, and Vinson, and served on the judicial panel that upheld the ruling favorable to Williams. Thanks to Norton, Robinson, and other civil-rights lawyers, sexual harassment came to be regarded as a form of discrimination similar to—and, for black women with white harassers, an expression of—racism.
Blue-collar women were also instrumental in broadening our understanding of sexual harassment, in part because, like black women, they experienced a lot of it. In 1988, a group of women miners filed the first class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit in the United States. (Today most sexual-harassment claims come from the restaurant industry, where more than one in 10 workers have reported that they or a coworker have experienced sexual harassment.)
Union members, including black women, who have been indispensable to the labor movement, have also fought for decades to end sexual harassment, including within unions. So have employee associations, feminist organizations, and feminist lawyers, scholars, and activists like Norton, Crenshaw, MacKinnon, and dozens of others.
Here are three valuable lessons from the early years of anti–sexual harassment activism: (1) an injury to one is an injury to all; (2) black women deserve credit for early leadership on this issue; and (3) no single individual deserves credit for a movement of many. A multiracial, mixed-class coalition of women and men from civil-rights groups, feminist groups, unions, and employee associations united to make sexual harassment the crime it now is. Rather than saying, as some at the time surely did, “Civil-rights work is more important than your handsy boss,” men like Robinson defined freedom from sexual harassment as a civil right.
Harassment shouldn’t provoke mass outrage only when its victims are rich, pretty, and white. But the involvement of high-profile actresses isn’t what’s important about #MeToo. What’s important is seizing this moment to build something more solid and longer-lasting than a Twitter campaign. Sharing stories can be powerful. But solidarity, strategic alliance building, and collective action are even more crucial to ending sexual harassment—and defending civil rights.