Sexual harassment old & new



By Louise Sukle

I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” wrote Harvey Weinstein after The New York Times reported that he had sexually preyed on women for the past 30 years.

He’s right. Workplace culture was different then, although that’s no excuse. We’re all products of our time. For me, and a lot of other women who came of age in that era, learning to fend off male advances was a job skill. We shrugged off men’s boorish behavior as just something we had to deal with.

The 1970’s ads for Virginia Slims (the cigarette that celebrated women’s newfound equality) spoke to women as hopefully as it did flippantly: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” This was, of course, a promise about the world more than an accurate reflection of it.

A brief history of sexual harassment in the 70s: According to Time magazine, the phrase “sexual harassment” was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University. A former employee of the university, Carmita Wood, filed a claim for unemployment benefits after she resigned from her job due to unwanted touching from her supervisor. The university had refused Wood’s request for a transfer, and denied her the benefits on the grounds that she quit for “personal reasons.” The issue soon made the news, especially after a widely reprinted New York Times article used the phrase “sexual harassment” in its headline that August.

By 1977, three court cases confirmed that a woman could sue her employer for harassment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, using the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as the vehicle for redress.

As Time magazine covered major incidents of harassment at Yale and Harvard in the late 70s and early 80s, noting that “as many as 18 million American females were harassed sexually while at work in 1979 and 1980,” the magazine also reported that “antifeminist crusader” Phyllis Schlafly believed these women were “asking for it.” At a Senate committee called to review federal guidelines on harassment, Schlafly testified that “virtuous women are seldom accosted.”

Today we may take for granted the idea that women’s bodies and lives are more than playthings for men but perception has a way of lagging behind reality.

Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and others like them may have come into adulthood in an age that made it easier for men to kid themselves that harassment was OK. But deep down they always knew it was wrong.

 We may well have come, in the words of Virginia Slims ads, “a long way, baby.” But we still have very, very far to go.