when pigs fly … expect the unbelievable

Archive for May 14th, 2009

The term “sexual harassment” was coined in the 70s.  While sexual harassment existed prior to the 70s, we didn’t have a name for it.  Even the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t recognize it.  The Civil Rights Act gave women an opportunity to redress economic disparity.  But there was no redress of the type of behavior that was primly referred to as “chauvinistic” during those years. 

And it seemed that suddenly one day, all working women realized they had simply “had enough!”  In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized sexual harassment as a violation of Title VII in the case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.  Vinson’s attorney, Catharine MacKinnon, a well known legal scholar, had defined sexual harassment over a decade earlier as:  (1) “quid pro quo” harassment, when sexual submission to a supervisor becomes, either implicitly or explicitly, a condition of employment, or (2) “offensive [hostile] work environment” harassment, when the conduct of a supervisor, co-employee, or client unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work or creates an intimidating and hostile workplace.  This gave a name to what other actors (mostly male) called “flirting” or “joking around”.

The Supreme Court’s opinion was significant in that it established that the language of Title VII is not limited to “economic” or “tangible” discrimination — that the phrase “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” evinces a congressional intent “to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment….”  The Court quoted the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals* that “…sexual harassment which creates a hostile or offensive work environment for members of one sex is every bit the arbitrary barrier to sexual equality at the workplace that racial harassment is to racial equality.  Surely a requirement that a man or woman run a guantlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and make a living can be as demeaning and disconcerting as the harshest of racial epithets.”

We can thank Catharine MacKinnon giving a name to the behavior.  It is a tenet of most Western religious philosophies that if you can name it, then you control it.  The name of the behavior is sexual harassment and we have been given the tools to control it.

*Interestingly, both the 11th Circuit and the U. S. Supreme Court conveniently forgot these thoughts as they considered the decisions in Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

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