QotD: “Before #MeToo, There Was Catharine A. MacKinnon and Her Book ‘Sexual Harassment of Working Women’”
Although the ritual itself has an incalculably long history, the term “sexual harassment” has only been around since the mid-1970s, when activists at Cornell University coined it during a consciousness-raising session. It was MacKinnon’s book, though dense and academic, that brought the idea broader attention, charting a course for the legal system to more effectively handle instances of harassment as cases of sex discrimination, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As far back as the 19th century, women were occasionally able to reap monetary damages through the courts if men touched them inappropriately in public, but tort law was an inadequate means of addressing harassment claims, MacKinnon believed, because it personalized injuries that were inflicted socially and ecumenically.
Lawyers who had tried to apply the civil rights statute to these claims had largely failed, in part because courts struggled to process what was essentially discriminatory about a practice that could theoretically victimize anyone: How could you ever know that a woman was subject to harassment because she was a woman, rather than, say, an individual who happened to be female? MacKinnon’s approach was rooted in the theory that sexual harassment realized and reiterated women’s inequality, that it locked women into a kind of dependence and failure.
It was not until seven years after the arrival of MacKinnon’s book, though, that the Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as a Title VII violation. The case was Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson and it had little nuance. In it a bank teller had charged that a company vice president had coerced her into having sex with him repeatedly, that he had touched her in public and raped her. Here the court ruled unanimously that harassment resulting in a hostile work environment was discriminatory and unlawful.
In a recent essay in The New York Times, MacKinnon celebrated the #MeToo movement, acknowledging that it was able to achieve what sexual harassment law, despite its sporadic victories, could not: a unified movement against an intractable brand of predation. Accusers were suddenly believed. Why the revolution finally got the reception it deserved has still not entirely been sorted out, but it seems clear that a war waged from the vantage point of legal theory was bound to have a harder time than a war waged from the modern media.
The 1970s and ’80s witnessed various efforts to expose and address the dark and dangerous habits of American intimacy. Movements against domestic violence and child abuse, for example, had meaningful allies in popular culture. In 1984, “The Burning Bed,” a television movie based on the true story of a Michigan housewife, Francine Hughes Wilson, who lit her husband on fire while he was sleeping, in retaliation for years of brutality, was viewed by 75 million people. The movie was crucial in transforming public understanding of spousal abuse: Shelters for battered women began opening around the country; the police began to take the issue more seriously; women who killed battering partners, and children who killed battering parents, were understood to be victims of a destructive syndrome that often gave them judicial reprieve.
Best-selling thrillers like “Flowers in the Attic” and “When the Bough Breaks” took on child abuse and molestation, and by the 1990s we began to see the spread of community notification laws that required convicted sex offenders to register. The law followed in a sense what narrative awakened first.
The movement against sexual harassment had something else, however: a mass-market antagonist in the empire of Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmopolitan magazine, which preached a feminism of patriarchal compliance. Brown encouraged young women to work hard, build careers and run companies, but to accomplish it all by coddling the men they worked with and finding sexual freedom along the way. In “Sex and the Office,” Brown’s sequel to her loopy best-selling instructional “Sex and the Single Girl,” she delivered a playbook for the way young women should understand male bosses that included lessons in making them feel godlike. Colleagues were potential sexual partners and the cubicle was Tinder: “Though it may seem to the untrained eye that you are selflessly working on office projects together, what you are really doing is sinking into them like a cobalt treatment so that you may make off with them after work.”
The book appeared in 1968 and in 2004 was reissued with an enthusiastic blurb from Donald Trump. In the 1990s, Brown’s brand of feminism, dependent on the idea that women needed to work within the structures available to them, gained a new currency and held on for a long time. MacKinnon, of course, believed that the structure itself was the problem, a notion that for more than three decades has largely been received as benighted and fusty. At long last, we’re coming around.