By Yvonne Sam
Social & Political Commentator
Did Anita Hill’s testimony really pave the way for a watershed moment on sexual harassment? Was America’s consciousness level, regarding sexual harassment, raised? Were there other African and African American trailblazers on the harassment path, before 1991?
If, as everyone is now saying, the testimony of Anita Hill in 1991, before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, pulled back the curtains on sexual harassment, pray tell how did the issue ever reach its current state?
What transpired thereafter, and subsequently, that has now brought us face to face with the current Harvey Weinstein watershed moment?
The standard story of how sexual harassment emerged into public consciousness rarely mentions the contributions of women of color, until 1991, when Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. More than 50 females thus far, have levelled accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul, and media outlets have reported that there are many others who are afraid to come forward, preferring to remain silent instead.
However, he is not the only high-profile male, in recent times, to have fallen victim to swift sexual harassment justice. Once the dam broke, the flood engulfed other big media names.
For three days in October1991, Anita Hill was a one-woman, live, worldwide television spectacle, as she went public with sexual harassment allegations, during the Senate confirmation process for Black US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In sexually explicit details, she described the atrocities she endured as a federal government employee under his employ. The entire country looked on, via television, as she testified before an all–male, all white Senate Judiciary Committee Senate.
Prior to Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment was seen as an issue for the victims, usually women, to solve on their own. The majority of victims suffered in silence, not wanting to jeopardize their careers, despite the fact that more than a decade earlier, both the courts and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had defined sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that could be illegal.
In a decision, written on June 19, 1986, by Justice William Rehnquist, the U. S Supreme Court ruled (9–0) that sexual harassment that results in a hostile work environment is illegal, based on the Meritor vs Vinson case.
Mechelle Vinson, an employee of Meritor Savings Bank, brought an action against the bank and her supervisor, claiming that during her employment, the supervisor subjected her to sexual harassment, intimidating her into having sex with him in vaults and basement, at least on 50 occasions, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Both victims, Vinson and Hill, were African Americans.
This harassment case was unique, in that it was the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court.
When it appeared as if the testimony of Hill would not be aired on television, angry women clogged the congressional switchboards. In addition, seven female members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Rep. Jolene Unsoeld of Washington, Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii, Rep. Barbara Boxer, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Rep. Nita Lowey, and Rep. Louise Slaughter marched to the Senate demanding that there should be a delay in voting for Thomas’ nomination, so as to allow a serious and thorough hearing to Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment.
Following Hill’s testimony, Justice Thomas was narrowly confirmed to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52 to 48.
Some other changes also came about due to Hill’s testimony on sexual harassment — between 1991 and 1998 there was double the number of claims of sexual harassment filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; better legal protection was demanded by women; Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, bolstering solutions for workplace victims of sexual harassment, providing damages for the full range of injuries that victims might suffer and giving victims the right to trial by a jury of their peers.
In1992, that was later dubbed Year of the Woman, Congress saw record number of women elected to the House of Representatives.
In the face of landmark cases, decided long before the Hill v Thomas debacle, why does sexual harassment still remain a problem? The present has blatantly omitted the significant contributions made by African American women, all of whom predates Hill.
In 1975, Camita Wood an employee of Cornell University, resigned, after being denied a transfer, claiming that she was experiencing physical problems as a result of her boss repeatedly pinning her against her desk with his body, and describing how aroused he was.
She was denied unemployment benefits, on the grounds that she had voluntarily left her job for personal reasons.
Together with activists at the university’s Human Affairs department, Wood formed a group called Working Women United. The group hosted an event, where secretaries, mailroom clerks, filmmakers, waitresses and factory workers openly shared their stories of masturbatory displays, threats and pressure to engage in sexual favors as a means of promotion. It was evident that the problem stretched beyond the university setting.
In 1976, Diane Williams, an African American woman employed as a public information specialist at the U. S Justice Department, claimed that after refusing a sexual advance by her supervisor, he thereafter engaged in continuous harassment and humiliation, including but not limited to, unwarranted reprimands, and refusal to inform her of matters. She was eventually terminated in September 1972, but the court ruled in her favor.
In yet another case, Paulette Barnes, an administrative assistant at the Environmental Protection Agency, filed a legal complaint, after her male supervisor suggested that her job would be helped if she had an affair with him, only to have him threaten to fire her if she refused.
Her case led to an appeals court decision in 1977 that sexual harassment constituted a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The very first day on her job, the white boss of Maxine Munford, a Black American, asked her, “If she would make love to a white man, and if she would slap his face if he made a pass at her.” She was fired when she refused his advances. The charges against her boss brought about one of Michigan’s first and most progressive state laws against sexual harassment, passed in 1980.
That same year, Willie Ruth Hawkins won the first successful case involving harassment by a coworker—a white man, who said he “wished slavery days would return so that he could sexually train her and she would be his bitch”. `
In August 1977, Sandra Bundy, a vocational rehabilitation specialist at the DC Department of Corrections, filed suit against the department, contending that promotions had been delayed and denied her, specifically because she had refused sexual advances.
Her case led to a 1981 ruling, which established that it is possible to bring a sexual harassment claim under Title VII, even if the harassment does not result in loss of job.
Despite the impact of these landmark cases and legal victories, showing that African American women have been in the movement against sexual harassment since the early 1970’s, it is evident that the issue still remains a problem.
Hill has expressed her pleasure and gratitude at being asked to lead the newly formed Commission on Sexual Harassment, a position that she may have landed as a symbolic sop to Cerebus or a gesture of atonement — taking into full consideration the manner in which she was treated during the hearing, the fact that there were others long before her appearance on the sexual harassment scene who fought equally hard and brought about significant changes in the way employees and employers relate to each other in the work environment.
It is blatantly apparent that the true pioneers of the sexual harassment movement, the African Americans, have been omitted, seemingly because they neither fit into a certain social mold nor possess certain attributes.
The majority of Harvey Weinstein accusers were high-profile celebrities with fame and status almost equal to that of his. While White Americans may be happy with the fact that sexual harassment has been identified and is now on the road to extermination, nevertheless they should also remember those who played a part right from the start.
African American women paved the way and they all should have their say. Anita Hill may now be bold, but her story has already been told.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.