The History Of Sexual Harassment At Work09:32
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University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Friday, Oct. 11, 1991. Hill testified that she was "embarrassed and humiliated" by unwanted, sexually explicit comments made by Thomas when she worked for him in the 1980s. (John Duricka/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Friday, Oct. 11, 1991. Hill testified that she was "embarrassed and humiliated" by unwanted, sexually explicit comments made by Thomas when she worked for him in the 1980s. (John Duricka/AP)

Just weeks after public allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the list of men accused of similar offenses is growing.

The U.S. has not seen such a moment before, according to historians Ed Ayers (@edward_l_ayers) and Nathan Connolly (@ndbconnolly). But sexual assault and other forms of misconduct have a long story in the U.S., especially in the workforce.

Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd learns more with Ayers and Connolly, co-hosts of the podcast BackStory, which is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Interview Highlights

On early protections for women in the workforce

Nathan Connolly: "The laws around protection for women were basically an echo of what the laws were protecting slaves, which were basically, only insofar as a person was considered property. So much of the law protecting women in the workplace had to do with whether or not they were being deflowered or spoiled as potential bartering instruments in families that were trying to marry off daughters, or to bear children. The law, really, for women in much of the 19th century was about the usefulness, the kind of value of women to their fathers, primarily. And so there's a whole area of law where women are forced to basically make claims about being damaged, as people who belong to these families. And so it's very much an echo of how slaves had to try to make their claims if they were damaged by being rented out by their master to an employer, which again is not anything that really does reflect the fullness of a woman's personhood."

Ed Ayers: "There's an 1858 case ... the father sues his daughter's employer — she's 14 — for getting her pregnant, and thus losing her income when she has to quit and have the baby. The irony of course is that, as women's opportunities continue to expand across the 19th century for work outside the home, work in which some of the rewards at least might be their own, these problems of sexual abuse and assault and harassment grew apace. And so even as the industrialization grows, so do the problems presented by men being in power over women. So it really takes off and never subsides. Every opportunity seems to be accompanied by another problem."

"What all this shows is that what we're seeing now is the tip of the iceberg being exposed."

Ed Ayers

On the origins of the term "sexual harassment"

NC: "'Sexual harassment' really is a term that was used in the 1970s to try to raise consciousness. An attorney by the name of Lin Farley tried to basically get the idea that harassment was a kind of discrimination. So you have to imagine that the legal landscape is one in which people are making a variety of claims and at the time, coming out of the 1960s, the principal way in which people talked about discrimination was very much still rooted in the history of the civil rights movement. And there's a reason for that. That's actually linked very much to the history of women and the workplace. Because much of the story coming out of the factories and the work done in the Progressive era and especially through the work that was being done in the homes — oftentimes by black domestics through the Jim Crow period — was about sexual harassment. And so you find people like for instance Rosa Parks, who first really cut their teeth politically on trying to pursue claims against women for rape and sexual harassment in places like the Jim Crow South, Parks from Alabama.

"When you have a movement that then swells and gets legislation passed, as happened in the mid-1960s with the Civil Rights Act, you then find that serving as the foundation for subsequent claims by second-wave feminists like Lin Farley and Catharine MacKinnon and others, another important legal mind, who are trying to find ways to create a broader definition of the way in which women's gender power, and again their labor power, is gonna be protected in the workplace."

On sexual harassment lawsuits being a modern phenomenon

NC: "A lot of what would become these discrimination suits were open secrets in industries around the country. You think about for instance areas like the secretaries who were being harassed by their bosses, or obviously women who are trying to break into industrial work still in the postwar period, and even Hollywood during the golden age of big pictures, the problems of gender harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace are an industry open secret."

EA: "It's hard to imagine that Judy Garland, when she's filming 'Wizard of Oz' in ruby-red slippers, is having to fight off [film producer] Louis B. Mayer in those very same days. And Shirley Temple. And so, what all this shows is that what we're seeing now is the tip of the iceberg being exposed. And it's shocking, really, how long it took for that to be exposed to public gaze, when as Nathan says, it had been an open secret in so many industries for so long."

"The question really does remain, will we see a new round of organizing, or women who are celebrities being able to speak and be believed in public about the accusations they're making toward their powerful male counterparts?"

Nathan Connolly

On lessons from history amid the current wave of allegations

NC: "I think one thing is clear, which is that when you have these groundswells of civic engagement and political consciousness, the legal system will in fact respond. I mean again, just thinking about the case of Anita Hill, it was one thing to see Clarence Thomas still be confirmed [to the U.S. Supreme Court] even in spite of his testimony. But no one can argue that that moment helped to raise new consciousness about what sexual harassment meant in the workplace. There were entire groups of women who were mobilized in the wake of that episode. One group, for instance, the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, got over 1,600 signatures just in the wake of that particular episode. And now we're seeing a new level of awareness about abuses in Hollywood, the very kinds of which Ed was describing in the 1950s. The question really does remain, will we see a new round of organizing, or women who are celebrities being able to speak and be believed in public about the accusations they're making toward their powerful male counterparts?"

EA: "What's striking is how quickly people mobilized after Anita Hill, not just in the spirit of anger or honesty, but in lawsuits and mobilization. And so I think Nathan's right, what's amazing is how rapidly the ground can shift beneath people's feet. And think about how the language changes: before, it's 'womanizing,' or it's 'being fresh.' Now it's being called by what it is. Those are big changes — when our language changes, often our ideas change to go along with it."

This segment aired on November 24, 2017.

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