Document 20A: Karen Lindsey, "Sexual Harassment on the Job and How to Stop It," Ms. (November 1977): 47-48, 50-51, 74-75, 78.


   This issue of Ms. focused on sexual harassment, with a cover story and several articles on sexual harassment. In one article, Karen Lindsey told stories of sexual harassment from women in a broad range of jobs — an executive secretary, an advertising agent, an assembly line worker, a medical administrator, a waitress, Congressional aides, and a student. She argued that the women hardest hit by harassment were waitresses, clerical workers, and factory workers because they were economically vulnerable. Lindsey also explained the work of the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion and Working Women United Institute, discussed surveys of sexual harassment, reviewed legal developments on the issue, described the effects of harassment, and provided suggestions for how to deal with harassment. Lindsey criticized articles suggesting that women can control sexual harassment through their behavior. The same issue of Ms. also included other articles on sexual harassment, including one on Working Women United Institute (see Document 20B) and one on Alliance Against Sexual Coercion (see Document 20C).

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By Karen Lindsey

   A woman in her late forties was hired as an executive secretary to the head of a small business in California. Her duties included a heavy correspondence load, keeping the social schedule of her boss and his wife, paying all his personal and household bills, and also arranging dates with, buying gifts for, and making motel reservations for the many young women whom he recruited for one-night stands. She was then summoned in the morning to hear about his sexual exploits, and to rehearse with him the details of an overnight business trip he had concocted as an excuse for his wife.

   When she objected to such non-business duties, she was told that she was lucky, at her age, to hear about sex at all. When he began to accompany his morning rehearsals with pats on her buttocks and requests for blow jobs, she objected more strongly, but still she felt guilty about having gone along with his lies up to then. He told her she was "a dirty old woman," and she felt ashamed, as if she might somehow have invited his advances. After a number of incidents in which he unzipped his pants in front of her, she finally quit the job she badly needed. Though she had done the secretarial work with great efficiency (and he had hired two women to replace her), he gave her poor work references, and wouldn't support her claim for unemployment insurance.

   A woman who had poured her life into an advertising career that she loved was introduced to her new department head. He made sexual propositions to her, implying that going to bed with him would help her "get to the top." She tried to refuse politely, but his lewd remarks and pointed staring continued over the following months. As she kept on resisting, he also began to find fault with her work. She finally complained to his superior. One week later, she was fired. After almost a year of being unemployed, she still has not even been judged eligible for unemployment compensation.

   A young woman assembly-line worker in a manufacturing plant complained to her foreman about constant propositions and sexual

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remarks by her male co-workers. He told her to ignore them. When the stares and comments continued, she threatened action by her husband. That didn't help either. Finally, she turned in one of the foremen to the plant management for sexually harassing her, and he now leaves her alone. But her co-workers still stare at intimate parts of her body, make lewd comments, and complain that she "never smiles."

   A medical administrator being interviewed for a job was asked if it were true, in the black neighborhood in which she and her family lived, that "all the women were prostitutes." After she was hired, her white supervisor suggested she go to bed with him and several of his colleagues at once. She quit and sought the support of local feminist organizations, and is taking the case to court as an instance of sex discrimination.

   A waitress who worked double shifts to support her five children was constantly subjected to customers who pinched her buttocks and breasts or reached their hands up the shortskirted costume that she was required to wear. She dodged and tried to kid them out of it as best she could, but carrying heavy trays among crowded tables often rendered her helpless. When she complained to the restaurant manager, he told her this was all part of her job; that the regular customers had worked out a betting system, with a dollar-value attributed to each part of a waitress's body that they succeeded in giving "a good feel," and that this meant business for the restaurant.

   When the waitress looked for another job, a topless bar was the only place that paid the salary she needed. Though she would have preferred that because "at least they keep the customers from putting their hands on you," she was judged "too old" and turned down. At this writing, she is still working in the same restaurant. She has acquired an ulcer and a distrust of men that keeps her from having any personal relationships with them, even outside her job situation.

   "It's an open secret," said the young woman aide to a United States Senator from the East Coast, "that some of our Congressmen and Senators just won't hire a woman unless they ‘try her out’ first. These are the same guys who are supposed to be passing legislation to protect women's rights." Exposés by Elizabeth Ray and Colleen Gardner, both of whom reported sexual favors expected as part of their duties on Congressional payrolls, slowed down some of the sexual pressures for a while. (Though even those exposés sometimes worked against women's employment. Several young women job applicants, in spite of excellent credentials, reported being turned down by cautious Congressmen in their efforts to avoid suspicion.)

   Women on Capitol Hill still discuss the problems of dodging their bosses and fellow staff-members around desks, however, as well as being expected to "hostess" important male constituents. And recourse under the "moral" Carter Administration is becoming more difficult than ever before. Congress, with the support of Carter's attorney general, has declared itself completely immune from all the antidiscrimination legislation it has passed for others (under the same immunity and "separation of powers" theories that Nixon tried to use to protect his Presidential papers during the Watergate scandal). Thus, there is little or no legal recourse, and women and minorities working for Congress must depend on such slender reeds as the Senate's ethics code (self-regulated), and voluntary membership in the House Fair Employment Practices Committee. Meanwhile, the sexist/racist employment practices (such as a request for "pretty blond receptionist, no pantsuits") go on and on in Washington.

   A student at Yale University reports that she was forced to abandon her studies and her career because of the "sexual advances" and "coerced sexual intercourse" imposed by the faculty member directing her studies. Another woman undergraduate attempted to complain to administrators about sexual harassment by the master of one of the colleges at Yale, but reports that she was greeted with discouragement and intimidation. A third young woman, an officer of an undergraduate organization, attempted to investigate such complaints. She not only had to do so with her own time and money, but she reports that she was given no support from the administration, and was subjected to "threats and intimidation from individuals involved in her investigations."

   These cases are cited in a class-action suit brought recently by a group of women students and one male professor against Yale University. The suit charges that the administration's "failure to combat sexual harassment of female undergraduates and its refusal to institute mechanisms and procedures to address complaints and make investigations of such harassment interferes with the educational process and denies equal opportunity in education." Yale has denied the charges.

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   These are a representative few of the thousands of cases of sexual harassment that have been reported in the scant two years since women began speaking out publicly on this longhidden problem. Like other feminist issues of abortion, rape, wife-battering, pornographic violence, and the sexual abuse of children, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has been hidden, treated as a dirty joke, or even attributed to the imagination or poor moral character of the victim. Like those punishments too, women have often suffered sexual harassment in silence, assuming that nothing could be done, that it was their personal dilemma, that they were somehow at fault for not being able to avoid it, or even that it was somehow an inevitable part of "women's lot."

   In fact, there wasn't even a proper definition of sexual harassment until women began to speak out, and two small feminist organizations began to publicize their problems. One of them, the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion (see box, page 49), includes this explanation on fliers sent out from its modest offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts: "Sexual harassment at the workplace takes many forms. These include verbal harassment, or abuse, subtle pressure for sexual activity, as well as rape and attempted rape. Sexual demands, made by male employers, co-workers, or clients, become coercive when women employees cannot freely choose to say yes or no. In this situation, a woman's economic livelihood is endangered -- her ability to keep a job, and to obtain benefits, promotions, or raises."

   Another group, Working Women United Institute, founded two years ago in Ithaca, New York, has moved to New York City and is seeking foundation funding to bring national attention to this problem (see box, page 49). Susan Meyer and Karen Sauvigné of WWUI say their preliminary studies show that "no woman, whatever her job, age, race, or marital status, is really free from harassment." Though isolated articles in publications as diverse as Quest, the feminist theoretical journal; Redbook; The Wall Street Journal; and The Ladies' Home Journal (in a column written by Ms. editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin) have unlocked floodgates of response, sexual harassment in the workplace has yet to get the serious book-length treatment awarded other feminist issues. (Lin Farley, formerly with WWUI, is at work on a book called Sexual Shakedown that is scheduled for publication by McGraw-Hill next year.) Furthermore, some of the nonfeminist writing on sexual harassment still seems to assume that it has mostly to do with real sexual attraction; that women who are adept at "handling a pass" or at dressing and speaking in ways that aren't "provocative" will somehow be able to avoid it.

   On the contrary, the range of ages and situations in which sexual harassment takes place makes clear that it is more often related to power than to sex. Like the middle-aged woman who was requested to give men blow jobs or the high-level women executives who are asked to tolerate pats on the head as well as the fanny, women of all ages and conditions are gradually becoming aware that sexual harassment is a symbol of superiority, dominance, and ownership. Perhaps especially among men who feel threatened by women in the workplace, and who doubt their own competence or power to excel in any rational way, sexual humiliation and possession are ways to shore up their self-image as masculine and therefore superior.

   The documentation that now exists also makes clear that what we have so far seen is only the tip of a very large and very destructive iceberg. WWUI's first, pioneering speak-out in 1975 was held in the small city of Ithaca, yet about 275 women turned out and about 10 percent were willing to risk embarrassment and retaliation by telling publicly their harassment experiences. Later, Meyer and Sauvigné surveyed women in upstate New York and sent out questionnaires to all the human rights commissions at city, county, and state levels. The results included responses from women whose ages ranged from 19 to 61. Betty Lehan Harragan in Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women (Rawson), a book assessing the varied problems of women trying to survive in business states her belief that "more women are refused employment, fired, or forced to quit salaried jobs as the result of sexual demands and the ramifications thereof than for any other single cause." And the Redbook questionnaire elicited some 9,000 replies, 88 percent of which were testimonies to sexual harassment on the job. A naval officer in California distributed the questionnaire to the women on his base and 81 percent responded with stories of the sexual harassment they had experienced.

   Other preliminary evidence of this problem's seriousness are the first few lawsuits charging discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In one landmark case, Diane Williams, an employee of the Justice Department, was awarded $16,000 in back pay after being fired for refusing her boss's sexual advances. Of course, actual instances of rape or assault and battery can be taken to the police

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on precisely those charges. There is also some speculation that insistence on sexual favors in return for hiring or promotion could be treated like a case of bribe or a kickback. The Yale lawsuit cited above argues a denial of "equal access to education," a charge that might be extending to job-training programs in which sexual harassment occurs. The major question is what all the courts will conclude. The few lower courts that have reached decisions in these cases so far have not agreed on what forms of sexual harassment, if any, constitute sex discrimination. (A civil court in Arizona described sexual harassment as "nothing more than a personal proclivity, peculiarity, or mannerism … satisfying a personal urge." Boys will be boys.) The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., however, in the first full opinion of a federal court of appeals, ruled last July that

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women who are subjected to sexual harassment by their bosses are protected under federal civil rights legislation.

   Whatever the possible remedy, there are some other conclusions to be drawn from the evidence now in. Logically enough, for instance, the women who are hardest hit by sexual harassment on the job are waitresses, clerical workers, and factory workers -- women who are poorly paid to begin with and who cannot afford to quit their jobs (and are often heads of families, supporting themselves and their children on small salaries), or do not have the resources to pursue costly court cases. And, of course, their economic vulnerability is played on by their male bosses. A woman working in a mail room complained about her boss's constant physical overtures. He threatened her with the loss of her job and showed her a letter he had placed in her file labeling her an incompetent and subordinate worker; a letter whose accessibility would severely affect her chances of finding work elsewhere.

   Another woman, a telephone operator, was not sexually bothered by her male supervisor, but would frequently get obscene calls to which she was expected to respond courteously, and was reprimanded if she did otherwise. A factory worker who responded to the Redbook survey told of complaining to the personnel manager about repeated sexual harassment by co-workers: the manager's response was to grab her breast.

   Nursing, too, is career in which harassment is frequent. One 1975 New York Times article quotes a Washington, D.C., woman, [who describes] harassment as "a working condition between male doctors and female nurses." And when doctors aren't propositioning nurses, patients are. In a recent Ann Landers column, a nurse complained of being constantly grabbed at by male patients. Landers's response that she must have been "sending some sort of signals" to provoke such sexual attack received a flood of angry letters from other nurses, telling of similar experiences. (One added, "I'm 52 years old and here's what I look like: I'm 5'3" and I weigh 160 pounds." It's proved over and over again that you don't have to be glamorous or young to face sexual harassment.)

   Not only nurses are harassed in the medical profession. One woman who is a medical student explained that in the midst of an operation, the male surgeon said, "I want some suction. You know how to suck, don't you? If you don't know how to suck, ask your boyfriend …."

   The same theme is repeated in almost every occupation. In Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, California, police and patrolwomen have charged their male partners with sexual harassment while on duty. And in the supposedly glamorous profession of acting, the "casting couch" remains a strong convention. In Boston three years ago, a young actress named Ann McCurry was abruptly fired from the cast of Lenny. McCurry charged that she was fired at the insistence of the play's male star, whose romantic advances she had rejected. Although her case gained publicity as a result of strong feminist support, she was not rehired. Actors' Equity, the stage actors' union, was unsympathetic to her complaints. In a separate

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action, however, the Screen Actors' Guild has set up a "morals complaint bureau" to deal with casting-couch complaints.

   Even in "alternative" or counter-culture jobs, the pattern is drearily similar. A young California woman who recently moved to Boston told me of her experiences as a writer of grant proposals for a nonprofit organization. Her boss, "for pretty good political reasons," hired a number of conscientious objectors, ex-drug addicts, and ex-convicts to work in the office. One ex-convict asked her to come into the office at night and help him with some tax records he was sorting out. Since the job had to be finished by the next day, she agreed. "This wasn't unusual, we often worked odd hours. When I got there he was drunk and started grabbing at me. I felt torn -- I wanted to leave right away, but I knew if he didn't get the job done he'd be in trouble at work, and it wouldn't be easy for him to find other jobs. He acted okay for a while, then he grabbed me and ended up raping me. Later I talked with other women in the office and found out he'd hassled one of them. He played on our liberal guilt; we knew he could be easily sent back to jail -- and he took advantage of that." (It should be noted that she did not experience harassment from the other ex-convicts in the office: all that distinguished this man's behavior from that of "respectable" businessmen was that he was able to manipulate the woman's sympathy for his prison experience.)

   Although most sexual harassment of women on the job comes from bosses and supervisors -- those with direct economic power over the women -- this is not the only pattern of harassment. A lot also comes from male co-workers, whose behavior is tacitly or openly sanctioned by their superiors, or who, as in the case of the ex-convict, play on the sympathies of the women they are molesting. Occasionally, harassment is directed toward a woman in a position of authority over the man. Redbook's survey reported a college professor being accosted by male graduate students in her classes, and the owner of a real-estate agency whose best salesman quit because "he said he couldn't work for me unless sex went along with the job." A bank executive quoted in The Wall Street Journal was offered accounts by several prospective clients only if she would agree to "go out" with them. Clearly, the power of one's job is not a protection from sexual harassment. It may make men want to "conquer" even more.

   What effect does all this have on the women who are subjected to it? The most obvious and devastating effects are financial. For women executives, at least, destitution is less likely to be an issue -- though the success of their businesses or their position in the corporate hierarchy may well be affected, and they may have difficulty finding equally high-level positions elsewhere. For the vast majority of clerical and blue-collar workers, the financial problems are more serious, especially if they are supporting families. Many cannot take time to look for other jobs; unemployment compensation, when they are able to get it (and all too often harassment is seen as insufficient reason for quitting), usually provides only half of a worker's former salary, and when that salary itself is barely enough to live on, the woman who quits or is fired because of sexual harassment faces real poverty.

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   There are also emotional and physical effects. Women who have been harassed on the job have reported a large array of psycho-physical symptoms: migraine headaches, back and neck pains, stomach ailments. Several report strained relationships with their husbands -- their anger and fear toward men during the day is difficult to put away in the evening. And, of course, the enjoyment and pride a woman takes in her work can be undermined and even destroyed when she's forced to spend time and energy fending off humiliating advances.

   What options are open to a woman facing sexual harassment on the job? Remedies are neither complete nor satisfactory, but more and more women are fighting back -- and making it stick.

  • The first step is to recognize sexual harassment, and to understand it is not your fault. Whether it appears as subtle comments and "accidental" touchings or flat-out propositions and attacks, you have a right to complain and take action.

  • If harassment takes the form of anything short of rape or assault and battery, you may want to talk with the offender directly, with your women co-workers, or with your boss and/or the boss of the offender.

   Your own tactical sense of whom to talk with first should be trusted. If you think the offender can be reasoned with or scared off, do so. On the other hand, if neither the offender nor the bosses seem open to reason, you may want to gather support from other women first. (Chances are that if a man has tried it with you, he has with others, too, and you are more likely to be believed -- and less likely to be fired -- if you're not alone.)

  • If the harassment includes actual or attempted rape or assault, you can file criminal charges against the offender. (A Massachusetts woman has instituted civil assault charges against her employer, for instance, and in upstate New York, the secretary of a county district attorney pressed charges against her boss who, after driving her home from a company picnic, attempted to force his way into her house and molest her.)

  • If you have a union, an office grievance committee, a professional association, or a women's caucus, find out whether there may be some redress or support available from that forum. Try to get a prohibition of harassing behavior included the next time your union is negotiating a contract. (Be warned, however, that unions, though worth trying, are often male-run and unsympathetic.)

  • If your job is secure enough and/or there are no other immediate ways of getting relief, you might try some less orthodox methods, i.e., posting an anonymous notice with the culprit's name or photo plus the message, "Warning: This man is a sexual harasser," or simply and pointedly discussing the offense with every other woman, or sympathetic man, in your factory or office. (Be sure of your facts, however, because such actions could result in slander charges and court proceedings.)

  • If your complaints through the proper internal channels don't work, or if you're fired or refused promotion because of those complaints, you can file an official complaint with your state or city Human Rights Commission or Fair Employment Practices Agency (the names may vary locally) or with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the U.S. government. You may want to seek the advice of a lawyer, though you are not technically required to have one, in filing a complaint. As more cases are decided in federal courts, we will have a clearer idea of whether sexual harassment can be labeled sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and whether this route is a viable remedy or not. In the meantime, if you do file a complaint, reconcile yourself to waiting from 60 days to three years for a decision. Nonetheless; you cannot legally be fired in retaliation for filing such a complaint and, of course, you can also file after quitting or being fired.

   Complaints to your state or federal labor relations board may produce some action if you have been fired or suffered some kind of retaliation because of your opposition to sexual harassment.

   In any or all of the above cases, it may be important to keep a written record of the incidents of harassment, and of your complaints and their results. Each individual woman must make her own judgment about the possibilities that she has and the risks that she is willing to take. But in the long run, the best hope is that large numbers of women workers will follow the example of groups like Working Women United Institute and Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, in order to speak out, organize, educate, and bring countrywide pressure on this issue. As Freada Klein of AASC says, "I hope this becomes a large movement -- like rape, like battered women -- because it's also an issue of violence against women. To have services, resources, and options offered in every community throughout the country would be the greatest thing that could happen."

Karen Lindsey is a feminist, free-lance journalist, and poet. Her second book of poems, "A Company of Queens, " is available for $4 from Bloody Mary Press, 115 Museum Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02143.


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