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).