Truth, Light, and the Origins of the Fight Against Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Truth, Light, and the Origins of the Fight Against Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Truth, Light, and the Origins of the Fight Against Sexual Assault on College Campuses

How a cohort of young feminists organized, agitated, and turned to Title IX to stop rape and sexual harassment on colleges 45 years ago.


She almost didn’t notice them anymore, all the white men staring out from portraits on the walls of Yale University’s halls. No darker faces. No female faces. But when Pamela Price entered Yale as a proud Black nationalist with an Angela Davis–style afro in the freshman class of 1974, culture shock hit hard. It wasn’t just the class differences, though those were huge.

Low, moat-like walls surrounded the stone residence colleges and many other Yale buildings, sending a subliminal message to “keep out.” Somehow the school made Black students feel like foreigners, which alienated her. Black students got the message that they were at Yale only because of affirmative action, as though invisible asterisks were affixed to their records. Price could feel people assume that she was inferior because she was a Black person and assume that she wasn’t serious because she was a woman. She knew that Yale had accepted Black students only because people fought and raised hell for their right to be there, to not be excluded. Price had seen worse; she would find her way through this too.

In the early culture shock of being at Yale, the Black community helped ground Price. She sang in the choir of the Black Church at Yale. She joined the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the Umoja Extended Family (now Umoja Community) of Black students and town residents. She started typing students’ papers at night to make some money, and in her sophomore year she landed a job at the Afro-American Cultural Center.

Before long, she could see that her work in class was as good as anyone else’s—sometimes better—which vanquished any self-doubt about her abilities. Nor was she intimidated by the nearly three-to-one ratio of men to women students.

Price chose to major in political science. A student friend from Ghana gave her the Ashanti nickname Amma, which she adopted and used as an alias when writing some of her more provocative political articles for Black newsletters. Her inner strength as a Black activist and the alert, caring Black community around her proved crucial in what came next.

At the end of her sophomore year, Price fell sick. She requested extensions on the due dates for final papers in three classes. When she recovered, she went to political science professor Raymond Duvall’s office to hand in a term paper, “Tanzanian Development and Dependency Theory.” To her surprise, he opened the door and invited the 19-year-old in. Here’s how Price remembers what happened next.

Duvall stepped behind his small desk as Price followed him into the tiny, messy office. “Have a seat,” he said.

Price handed him the paper and sat down in one of the two chairs taking up most of the space between the door and the desk. Duvall shuffled some papers.

“Oh, I see you didn’t do very well on the final,” he said, not looking at her.

“Well, I was sick. That’s why you gave me an extension. That’s why I’m here to turn in the paper,” Price said.

“I hope that this is an A paper.”

“I hope so too,” she said.

After a pause, Duvall slowly came around the desk. His eyes averting hers, Duvall repeated, “I hope that this is an A paper.”

“OK, yeah, that’s good. Me, too,” Price said.

Duvall continued, “I really would hate to give you a C.”

“OK, that’s fine,” Price agreed. “I don’t want a C. I’m not a C student.”

Duvall sat in the chair next to her, very close. “I really, really would hate to give you a C,” he repeated.

“I don’t want a C,” she said, confused about the conversation.

Finally, Duvall said, “Well, will you make love to me?”

With no frame of reference for this, Price at first didn’t connect the question with the rest of the conversation. Her first and only thought was, “No.” Out loud, she said matter-of-factly, “No. No, I’m not,” as her mind churned over his strange request. “No. I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Her head shook side to side. “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. No. No.”

After a lull, still oblivious, she said, “Well, can I leave now?”

“Yes, you can leave,” Duvall said. She got up and squeezed between the chairs, his eyes following her. As she walked out the door, he added, “God, you have a really turn-on body!”

Duvall later denied Price’s account.

She made her way down the stairs to the ground floor. “What’s wrong with this man?” she thought. “There’s something wrong with him.” By the time she reached the base of the stairs, the meaning of it all hit her, and made her angry.

She went directly to work at the Afro-American Cultural Center and immediately told her boss, Khalid Lum, what had happened. Lum made her sit down right then and type out exactly what had happened—verbatim—in a complaint to be delivered immediately to a dean, Eva Balogh. He sent Kevin, a football player, with her to give it to the dean. Price told Balogh that Duvall tried to extort sex for an A grade. Balogh said this kind of thing happened all the time and nothing could be done about it, Price remembers, though Balogh later said she simply advised Price to wait and see what grade Duvall assigned.

Duvall graded her paper a C and gave her a C in the course—the only C she received at Yale. The university had no grievance procedure for sexual harassment and did nothing about Price’s complaint. She left for Tanzania soon after the incident on a planned junior year abroad, relieved to put the hostile weirdness of the university behind her and thrilled to be living in a Black nation that felt like going home.

Duvall moved that summer to a faculty position at the University of Minnesota.

While Price studied abroad in Tanzania, the Yale Undergraduate Women’s Caucus, founded in 1974 by Ann Olivarius and five other students, developed a report on women’s issues at Yale to be presented in 1977 to the Yale Corporation (its board of trustees). Five of the report’s 23 pages described three rapes by students and sexual coercion and assault by a teaching assistant. These problems were “not uncommon,” it stated. Any woman brave enough to tell a professor or dean received, at most, a word of sympathy. Since there was no formal complaint process, the person they told didn’t know that other students were complaining about the same perpetrator to other professors and deans. Individually, officials told each woman it was her problem to sort out.

Their stories echoed a broader movement against sexual violence starting to catch fire.

Feminists in an audience of 400 at Bay Path Junior College in Longmeadow, Mass., refused to stay silent during a lecture by rape apologist Frederic Storaska on April 26, 1975. Storaska had a book to promote, How to Say No to a Rapist—and Survive. During his talk, Storaska advised women to see the rapist as a human being whose frustration turns to anger and rape when a girlfriend humiliates him or makes out with him but won’t go all the way, or because the rapist had an emotionally distant mother. Some people in the audience hissed their disapproval.

Women, Storaska continued, physically cannot fight off a man. If you feel you have to fight for your life, at least don’t scream, because that may make the rapist angrier. Don’t panic if a would-be rapist touches your breast, he said. “It doesn’t fall off unless it’s loose.”

Thirty or so women started chanting, “Rape is not a joke.” Some of them stormed the stage and unplugged his microphone. A fight broke out; ultimately police arrested one woman.

Several college campuses canceled Storaska’s scheduled talks. At other talks, women handed out flyers warning that Storaska had no evidence to back up his theories; they challenged him when he took questions.

The campus activism extended efforts to stop sexual violence that had been building for more than a century, led often by women of color. Black women—including a formerly enslaved transgender woman, Frances Thompson—testified to Congress in 1866 about gang rapes by white mobs in the Memphis riots. Rosa Parks and other organizers campaigned in the 1940s and beyond to stop the raping of Black women by white men and false rape accusations by whites against Black men—both tools used to perpetuate white supremacist control.

As the women’s movement evolved from consciousness-raising groups to concrete actions, feminists at the University of Iowa, the University of South Florida, Fresno State University, George Washington University, and elsewhere founded rape crisis centers, taught self-defense classes, fought for rape-law reform, and organized annual Take Back the Night marches. The number of rape task forces in NOW chapters blew up from 15 to 66 by early 1974.

While attention to sexual violence grew, so did action against sexual misconduct that wasn’t quite assault, most often in the workplace. Carmita Wood, an administrative assistant for a Cornell University physics professor, became physically ill from the stress of fending off repeated sexual advances from her boss. She sought help in early 1975 from the university’s Human Affairs Program, where three radical feminists (Lin Farley, Susan Meyer, and Karen Sauvigné) looked into her case. They found that every woman they knew had experienced something like what Wood reported, but virtually nobody talked about it. So they started an organization called Working Women United to address this, and connected Wood to a lawyer.

Before they could change the problem, they had to name it. They’d talked with Wood about “sexual abuse,” “sexual intimidation,” and “sexual coercion.” They settled on “sexual harassment” in April 1975 because it covered a wide variety of conduct. Soon the press started using the phrase.

Wood lost her case on appeal, but other desperate and courageous women filed six influential lawsuits between 1971 and 1975. Eventually their cases established that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment. That mattered to a lot of women—a 1976 survey of 9,000 working women found 90 percent faced some sexual harassment on the job.

At Yale, as the Undergraduate Women’s Caucus collected stories of sexual harassment, some faculty names came up again and again as repeat offenders. Olivarius approached a friendly administrator to see if something could be done about serial abusers. She and Sam Chauncey, the secretary of the university, met almost weekly for months. In order to help, Chauncey told her, he’d need the names of the accused faculty and the students. Olivarius got the students’ permission to share their names and stories. All of this would be confidential, Chauncey assured her, but he broke that confidence. Chauncey told music teacher and bandleader Keith Brion that he’d been accused of rape, Olivarius said.

The Women’s Caucus had heard three accounts of Brion raping students. Other Yale students said Brion locked his office door during music lessons, kissed their ears, and placed Playboy centerfolds on their music stands. Many quit the lessons or the band to avoid him.

Brion started stalking Olivarius, she said. He tracked her down as she was cleaning dorm rooms to earn some money before graduation. Tall and thin, he pelted her with verbal threats. Then Brion’s wife, LaRue, a secretary at Yale with access to Olivarius’s records, found her in her dorm. She begged Olivarius to back off, saying the students were lying and asking Olivarius not to hurt her family if she truly considered herself a feminist. When that didn’t work, Olivarius recalled later, Mrs. Brion threatened her, saying she’d “fuck with” her academic files and interfere with Olivarius’s applications for fellowships and graduate schools if she didn’t stop.

Unnerved, Olivarius called Chauncey for advice. “I think I’ve got a problem,” she said.

She did, Chauncey said, and he told her an alarming lie: Brion was about to have her arrested for libel, and Yale was backing him, not her, she remembers. “You’d better get a lawyer,” Chauncey told her. Olivarius would go on to be a wildly successful feminist lawyer, but at the time she didn’t know that you can’t be arrested for libel. Frantic, Olivarius consulted one of her instructors, Catharine A. MacKinnon, who eventually became an eminent feminist legal theorist but at that time was a graduate student. MacKinnon pointed her to the sparse office of a new community-oriented law practice, the New Haven Law Collective.

“We have to figure something out. We have to,” Olivarius pleaded. Not just for herself, but for all the women students being harassed or assaulted. Lawyer Anne E. Simon suggested they fight using offense rather than defense. But how? They tapped MacKinnon, who was finishing a law school dissertation that eventually became her groundbreaking 1979 book Sexual Harassment of Working Women. The group adapted some of MacKinnon’s thinking to an educational setting, which gave them a handle to open a new legal door.

Simon took the lead on drafting a complaint arguing for the first time that unchecked sexual harassment in an educational setting constitutes sex discrimination, charging Yale with violating Title IX of the 1972 federal education law. It wasn’t clear that individuals had the right to sue to enforce Title IX. The strategy was a gamble.

Olivarius helped find other potential plaintiffs with assistance from the Undergraduate Women’s Caucus. She gathered evidence and tried to poke holes in her team’s draft legal arguments.

Senior Ronni Alexander agreed to tell her story. On a December day in her sophomore year, getting out of a friend’s car, she’d whacked her head on the doorframe so hard it caused a concussion. Her friend brought her to the health center but had to leave. Alexander started walking unsteadily toward her dormitory.

Brion, who was her flute teacher, saw her on the way. He offered to drive her back to her dorm. Barely able to string together a coherent sentence, Alexander said, “OK.” She didn’t like being near Brion. In her freshman year she’d quit taking lessons from him because he started touching her breasts while “checking her breathing.” Another time he grabbed her, kissing and fondling her even though she told him to stop. But he was Yale’s only flute instructor, and she dreamed of auditioning for Yale’s Music School, so she restarted the lessons her sophomore year.

On the way back to Alexander’s dorm, Brion stopped at an apartment he kept near campus, separate from his family. He led her inside and laid her on the bed. “The sheets smell dirty,” she thought. Then Brion raped her, she said. She didn’t resist, didn’t understand why, and didn’t tell anyone from the shame. Soon after, though, she asked a student counselor what would happen if a professor forced a student into a sexual relationship. The counselor asked a dean, who said he would call the professor and the student into his office to talk it through. Alexander said nothing. Brion raped her at least once more. Zombielike, she didn’t resist, and blamed herself. Alexander took a Greyhound bus to Canada, where a friend talked her out of suicide. Eventually she returned to Yale, moved out of her dorm into an apartment, and gave up music.

When Women’s Caucus members approached Alexander in her senior year with other accounts about Brion, she agreed to file a report with Yale and joined the lawsuit that took her name, Alexander v. Yale. Besides Olivarius, the plaintiffs included Lisa Stone, who roomed with one of Brion’s victims; Stone had reported Brion to an English professor, whose only response was to sexually proposition her. A lone faculty member joined them: John (Jack) Winkler, a classics scholar, queer theorist, political activist, and Stone’s thesis adviser. Sexual harassment at Yale led to an “atmosphere of distrust” of male professors that undermined his teaching efforts, Winkler charged. From the start, the plaintiffs decided they would not be anonymous. They were not ashamed.

Simon filed the suit on July 3, 1977, in US District Court in New Haven, Conn. The New York Times placed its story about the suit in the “Family/Style” section. A Yale spokesman told the Times that faculty sexual misconduct was “not a major problem.”

The Undergraduate Women’s Caucus—now nearly 200 members strong—learned of Pamela Price’s complaint and invited her to join the lawsuit. Price had never heard of Title IX, so she didn’t instantly say yes. Her C grade and Duvall’s misconduct bothered her, but more important, she could not abide Yale’s treatment of Ronni Alexander. The woman was raped; Price felt she had to do something about it. She joined the lawsuit. From the start, Alexander v. Yale was about Title IX protection against rape (which the lawsuit called “coerced sexual intercourse”) as well as behaviors lumped under the term “sexual harassment.”

Simon added Price and another plaintiff to the suit: Margery Reifler, who said she’d been harassed by the field hockey coach. The lawsuit asked for a formal grievance procedure to handle complaints of sexual harassment at Yale. A student petition for grievance procedures drew 12,000 signatures.

The Yale women’s lawsuit became the talk of the campus and the town of New Haven. It generated some national publicity, both supportive and derisive. The Women’s Caucus organized campus discussion sessions and fundraisers. But when Alexander stopped by a bar popular with working women not long after she appeared on TV discussing the lawsuit, she was surprised to be met by cold, hostile faces. The women seemed to think she was a weak, spoiled attention seeker for talking about sexual harassment, something they all had put up with for years without publicly whining about it. More than a few women students at Yale felt the same way. Still, the concept of sexual harassment being sex discrimination spread like wildfire among students.

The first ruling in the case came on December 21, 1977. Federal District Court Magistrate Judge Arthur H. Latimer affirmed for the first time that Title IX can apply to sexual harassment in education because “academic advancement conditioned upon submission to sexual demands constitutes sexual discrimination in education.” And he recognized that the right to a private lawsuit exists in Title IX cases.

But he dismissed Alexander because she had graduated and Reifler because she hadn’t filed a complaint (even though Yale had no procedure for doing so). He dismissed Stone, Olivarius, and Winkler because they hadn’t claimed personal exclusion from educational opportunities, and “no judicial enforcement of Title IX could properly extend to such imponderables as atmosphere or vicariously experienced wrong”—what years later became recognized as a sexually hostile environment.

That left Price, the only plaintiff who could move forward in the case. The decision pitted a lone Black woman student against a white male professor. She and Simon asked for class-action status representing all women students at Yale, but Latimer refused.

Before this ruling, many of Price’s friends trivialized the case as “those white women” or “those feminists.” Now their tone changed. “I was subjected to the assumption of my inferiority as a black person as well as the assumption of my lack of seriousness as a woman,” Price said in a December 1977 statement. The grade Duvall gave her, she said, was “a concrete expression of his racist and sexist appraisal of me as a person—in my case the one attitude is inherently linked with the other.”

The Council of Third World Women at Yale and the Afro-American Cultural Center helped turn out support. The Women’s Caucus released press statements and a fact sheet noting the racial overtones of the case and the double jeopardy of racism and sexism that women of color faced. Price loved that the lawsuit built bridges between Black and white activists, though extensive media coverage of the case largely ignored the issue of race.

By the time the Yale case—now titled Price v. Yale but still often called Alexander v. Yale—came to trial in January 1979, Price had graduated and was in the middle of her first year at Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. She missed three weeks of classes for the trial. Two of her professors supported her attendance and helped her catch up afterward, but an assistant dean warned her in advance that her absence from the third class would not be excused. “You know,” he added, “I went to Yale.”

Price’s pastor showed up every day to the second-floor courtroom of New Haven’s federal district court building to support her during the two-week trial. Flyers urged spectators to attend because “This lawsuit is about: 1. Women fighting sexual harassment. 2. Women speaking out against sexual abuse. 3. Third World and white women standing together to say ‘NO to racism and sexism.’” A multihued crowd of students and others rallied on the New Haven Green repeatedly during the trial.

Judge Ellen Bree Burns, a Yale Law graduate, chose to conduct the trial as a tort suit, a claim of harm to one individual, instead of considering the broader harm to a group of people, as occurs in a class-action suit. She allowed only inquiries or evidence about Price’s own experiences, not Yale’s failure to comply with Title IX. “If it was an individual thing, I wouldn’t be here,” Price told the media. “It’s about more than the fact that Duvall propositioned me. It’s about all women who are sexually harassed.”

Judge Burns announced her decision on July 2, 1979: There was no proof that the alleged proposition by Duvall happened; the C grade was deserved; and because Price had already graduated, Yale’s policies no longer affected her. “It’s the same old story,” Price said in a statement. “Where sex is concerned, black women’s accusations are considered lies and white men’s denials are believed. Unfortunately, the trial, which was presided over by a woman, was merely another manifestation of the racism and sexism pervasive in society and reflected in its laws.”

All five students agreed to appeal the decision minus Professor Winkler, who had left to teach at Stanford University. Two of the best feminist litigators in the country—Nadine Taub and Liz Schneider of the Center for Constitutional Rights—agreed to steer the appeal, with amici support from a slew of women’s groups.

Yale rehired and promoted Keith Brion, the bandleader accused of raping Alexander and others.

Students at universities in at least six other states also organized to fight sexual harassment, inspired by the Yale suit and the movement against sexual harassment in general. The American Council on Education held seminars across the country in 1979 on sexual harassment policy. Secretaries at Boston University and Harvard organized and eventually won one of the first clauses about sexual harassment in a union contract. The Alliance Against Sexual Coercion created a handbook for establishing college grievance procedures.

For Price’s appeal in the Yale case, Simon, Taub, and New Haven Law Collective employee Phyllis L. Crocker traveled to New York for a mandatory mediation session before the court would hear arguments. Everyone around the conference table at the Second Circuit courthouse had gone to Yale or its law school: the three women and, on the other side, Yale’s attorney, its representative, and the mediator. The three men called the women ungrateful for the privilege of attending Yale and said they should drop the suit, Crocker recalled. The women replied: You just don’t get it.

They officially argued the appeal on April 16, 1980, before three white men on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. By that time Yale had adopted a grievance procedure, though some found it inadequate. The appellate court backed Judge Burns’s decision in favor of Yale on September 22. Alexander’s claim that Brion’s rapes killed her desired career as a flutist was “highly conjectural,” the judges said, and Price hadn’t proved anything in her case.

Within two years of Alexander v. Yale ending, though, the universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin; the University of California, Santa Cruz; and Brown, Stanford, and Tulane universities had adopted formal sex discrimination policies and grievance procedures, most of which were weak but were at least a start.

Price was working as a student intern for a criminal defense firm in San Francisco in 1980 when one of her attorneys called to tell her they’d lost the appeal. “That’s it. Title IX is dead,” she thought. It would never be a useful tool to fight rape and sexual harassment.

But five years later, hundreds of colleges and universities had adopted grievance procedures. It was just the beginning.


Correction: In a previous version of this article, Carmita Wood, who helped inspire the movement against sexual harassment, was identified as a Black woman. This was incorrect; she was a white woman.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy