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A primer on the history of sexual harassment—and why it deserves a place in diversity training

A historical understanding of sexual harassment should be provided in organizational trainings, says this author and historian.

A primer on the history of sexual harassment—and why it deserves a place in diversity training
[Photo: Etienne Boulanger/Unsplash]
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Last fall, I taught a new class called “#MeToo: A Cultural History” at Miami University. To my surprise, more than half of the 40 students in this humanities elective were business majors. Several had been inspired to take the class by the #MeToo movement. Others enrolled after having already experienced various forms of workplace sexual harassment. Why are young women entering the workforce in the 2020s still encountering pervasive sexual harassment, and what can we do about it?

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To eradicate sexual harassment, we need to understand the historical context in which it developed. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts succeed to the extent that we understand their place within a long history of institutional racism. We initiate these programs in order to show we value their historic significance. Why, then, should we expect to stamp out sexual harassment with an annual HR training rather than with a deeper understanding of structural sexism in the workplace?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. That is what makes it illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1986 in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. But, as Yale legal scholar Reva Siegel explains in her 2003 paper, sexual harassment is also a social practice, with a very long history dating back as long as women have worked outside their own homes.

Throughout the 19th century, most women who worked for pay did so as domestic servants, an employment setting in which women regularly endured sexual assault and harassment at the hands of their employers with little to no recourse. Sexual assault was also a foundational element of enslavement, and, since the early 19th century, Black women have led the fight against harassment and assault. To be more effective, sexual harassment trainings should also include discussions of intersectionality.

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Women employed in factories most often worked in sex-segregated industries, such as textiles, under all-powerful male bosses. Sexual assault was rampant there, too, as Progressive Era reformers regularly pointed out. But female laborers held such tenuous places in both the factory and the labor movement that they did not organize against sexual assault, especially since women themselves tended to be blamed for it.

By the early 20th century, women entered offices as secretaries. Previously “secretary” had been a male job, sort of like an apprentice, but the job became feminized thanks to new devices like the typewriter, which gave rise to a whole new category of mundane tasks for which women were deemed uniquely suited. As anyone who has watched Mad Men knows, secretaries also typically functioned as “office wives” to male bosses—fetching coffee, buying anniversary gifts, and sometimes performing consensual and nonconsensual sex acts.

Thanks to decades of feminist activism, sexual harassment became recognized as a form of sex discrimination in the mid-1970s. Catharine MacKinnon’s 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, provided the legal framework through which sexual harassment claims eventually won in court. Sexual harassment, she wrote, “perpetuates the interlocked structure by which women have been kept sexually in thrall to men and at the bottom of the labor market. Two forces of American society converge: men’s control over women’s sexuality and capital’s control over employees’ work lives.”

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At the same time and thanks to the same feminist advances, more women entered high-paying and high-status positions. In response, new forms of sexual harassment emerged in the 1980s to keep women from these all-male realms. The lusty boss who made unwanted advances on his secretaries enforced their subordinate place, while the stockbroker who encountered women as equals turned to misogynist locker room talk to exclude them.

Sexual harassment training videos from the 1970s and 1980s tended to focus on the handsy boss but nevertheless made clear that sexual harassment functioned as a form of male domination of women. More recent sexual harassment training videos, as the law professor Elizabeth Tippett argues, generally present harassment as wrong because it makes coworkers uncomfortable. Such perfunctory lessons describe sexual harassment as interpersonal, rather than structural, and as fundamentally about sex and civility, not power and civil rights.

Furthermore, the imbalance of domestic labor at home, which scholars have termed the “second shift” for working women, preconditions men to view female colleagues through the lens of the subordinate wife. Who gets the cake for the office birthday party? Who takes the minutes at meetings? The same person who performs the majority of thankless tasks at home. While such gender-based discrepancies may seem minor or even trivial, they nevertheless establish that men’s time is more valuable than women’s, and that women remain subordinate to men.

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A comprehensive 2018 report on sexual harassment by the Better Life Lab found that “sexual harassment is often driven by narratives, myths, and norms about women, men and workers.” Stories about the eccentric genius protect harassers just as myths about the male breadwinner and female homemaker “perpetuate a gender-harassing power dynamic.” One way to disrupt such myths and the workplaces they create is to replace them with historical narratives about women’s participation in the labor force and their 200-year-long struggle against sexual harassment.

From talking with the students in my #MeToo class, I know that they don’t want employers to place them at the high-profile exhibit table to attract new customers, and they don’t want to have to explain to employers why doing so is wrong.

Instead, they want employers and coworkers to have a basic understanding of the historical forces shaping women’s work and to establish workplaces that equally value and promote the labors of all employees.

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Kimberly Hamlin is an associate professor of history at Miami University, author of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener, and the force behind the first-of-its-kind course, #MeToo: A Cultural History. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award.