How Two Legal Cases Established Sexual Harassment as a Civil Rights Violation

1976 In Williams v. Saxbe, a U.S. District Court rules that quid pro quo sexual harassment constitutes sex discrimination.

In 1975, a trio of feminist activists in the Human Affairs program at Cornell University wrote a letter describing a painful and familiar story. A mother of two named Carmita Wood had come to them for help. She had left her job of eight years after enduring long-term stalking and molestation by her male boss and was then denied unemployment benefits because she had quit her job “without good cause.” The Cornell women wanted to help her, and they debated different ways to describe what Wood had suffered—a debasement that threatened her economic survival. “Sexual coercion,” “sexual intimidation,” and “sexual blackmail” were all considered, but none had the right ring of seriousness without melodrama. Then it came to them: “sexual harassment.” They coined the term in a letter sent out seeking a lawyer to take the case. Finally, something that had been going on for as long as women had worked alongside men—the abuse of female employees by male bosses—had a name. And that meant it could be fought.

There were two breakthrough legal cases that established sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination and a violation of a person’s rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The first was that of Diane Williams, an African American woman who was fired from her job as a public information specialist at the U.S. Justice Department after refusing the sexual advances of her boss. She sued in a Washington federal court and won.

Around the same time, the case of Paulette Barnes, also African American, who was hired as a payroll clerk at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was making its way through the courts. Shortly after Barnes reported for work, her male supervisor started demanding sex, suggesting that she would benefit career-wise if she complied. She didn’t—and was eventually fired. Barnes sued, lost, and ultimately won on appeal in 1977, with the higher court finding that she had suffered a form of discrimination. A separate case brought the issue to the Supreme Court, which in 1986 recognized it as a civil rights violation.

For employers, the precedent created by Barnes’s case—and later, the testimony of Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—raised the legal and reputational costs of tolerating such behavior in the workplace. “Sexual harassment law is the first law written by women about our own condition,” says Catharine MacKinnon, the pioneering lawyer who first developed a legal theory of sexual harassment. “Naming sexual harassment, and calling it what it is in law—a practice of sex discrimination—has given survivors then and now the sense they are not to blame and not alone, the dignity of a civil rights violation, and a forum for accountability and relief.”

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