Racism, Sexism and Omission in Sexual Harassment – By Yvonne Sam

Racism, Sexism and Omission in Sexual Harassment

By Yvonne Sam

Did Anita Hill’s testimony really pave the way for a watershed moment on sexual harassment?

Was America’s consciousness level regarding sexual harassment raised? other African Female African American trailblazers on the harassment path before 1991?

 There were other Female African American trailblazers on the harassment path before 1991?

If as everyone is now saying the testimony of Anita Hill in 1991, before an all- male Senate  Judiciary Committee pulled back the curtains on sexual harassment, pray tell how did the issue ever reach its current state?    

What transpired thereafter and subsequently, that has now brought us face to face with the current Harvey Weinstein watershed moment.The standard story of how sexual harassment emerged into public consciousness rarely mentions the contributions of women of color until 1991, when Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

More than fifty females thus far have levelled accusations against Harvey Weinstein the movie mogul, and media outlets have reported that there are many others who are afraid to come forward, preferring to remain silent instead. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/weighing-the-costs-of-speaking-out-about-harvey-weinstein.However, he is not the only high profile male in recent times to have fallen victim to swift sexual harassment justice. Once the dam broke the flood engulfed other big media names.

For three days in October1991, Anita Hill was a one woman live, worldwide television spectacle, as she went public with sexual harassment allegations,during the Senate confirmation process for Black U. S Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In sexually explicit details she described the atrocities she endured as a federal government employee under his employ. The entire country looked on via television as she testified before an all –male, all white Senate Judiciary Committee Senate. http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/10/21/greenberger.anita.hill/index.html.

Prior to Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment was seen as an issue for the victims, usually women, to solve on their own. The majority of victims suffered in silence, not wanting to jeopardize their careers, despite the fact that more than a decade earlier both the courts and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had defined sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that could be illegal. http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/10/21/greenberger.anita.hill/index.html

In a decision written on June 19, 1986by Justice William Rehnquist, the U. S Supreme Court ruled (9–0) that sexual harassment that results in a hostile work environment is illegal, based on the Meritor vs Vinson case.https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1986/06/20/court-rules-firms-may-be-liable-for-sexual-harassment/83ecaae2-74c7-4bea-8d9e-12b7e0023ef7/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.2e67674b950c

Mechelle Vinson, an employee of Meritor Savings Bank brought an action against the Bank and her supervisor, claiming that during her employment, the supervisor subjected her to sexual harassment, intimidating her into having sex with him in vaults and basement, at least fifty occasions, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both victims MechelleVinson and Anita Hill were African Americans. This harassment case was unique, in that it was the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/10/13/s

When it appeared as if the testimony of Anita Hill would not be aired on television, angry women clogged the congressional switchboards. In addition, seven female members of the House of Representatives,including Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Rep. Jolene Unsoeld of Washington, Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii, Rep. Barbara Boxer, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Rep. Nita Lowey, and Rep. Louise Slaughter marched to the Senate demanding that there should be a delay in voting for Clarence Thomas’ nomination so as to allow a serious and thorough hearing to Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/09/us/thomas-nomination-7-congresswomen-march-senate-demand-delay-thomas-vote.html?pagewanted=all

Following Anita’s testimony,Justice Thomas was narrowly confirmed to the Supreme Courtby a vote of 52 to 48 http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/16/us/thomas-confirmation-senate-confirms-thomas-52-48-ending-week-bitter-battle-time.html?

Some other changes also came about due to Hill’s testimony on sexual harassment- between 1991 and 1998 there was double the number of claims of sexual harassment filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, better legal protection was demanded by women, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 bolstering solutions for workplace victims of sexual harassment, providing damages for the full range of injuries that victims might suffer and giving victims the right to trial by a jury of their peers. In1992, that was later dubbed Year of the Woman, Congress saw record number of women elected to the House of Representatives. http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/10/21/greenberger.anita.hill/index.html

In the face of landmark cases decided long before the Hill v Thomas debacle why does sexual harassment still remain a problem? The present has blatantly omitted the significant contributions made by African American women, all of whom predates Anita Hill.

In 1975, Camita Wood an employee of Cornell University resigned, after being denied a transfer, claiming that she was experiencing physical problems as a result of her boss repeatedly pinning her against her desk with his body, and describing how aroused he was. She was denied unemployment benefits, on the grounds that she had voluntarily left her job for personal reasons.

Together with activists at the university’s Human Affairs, Wood formed a group called Working Women United. The group hosted an event where secretaries, mailroom clerks, filmmakers, waitresses and factory workers openly shared their stories of masturbatory displays, threats and pressure to engage in sexual favors as a means of promotion.  It was evident that the problem stretched beyond the university setting.


In 1976 Diane Williams, an African American woman employed as a public information specialist at the U. S Justice Department, claimed that after refusing a sexual advance by her supervisor, he thereafter engaged in continuous harassment and humiliation including but not limited to, unwarranted reprimands, refusal to inform her of matters. She was eventually terminated in September 1972, but the court ruled in her favor.   https://discriminationandsexualharassmentlawyers.com/landmark-sexual-harassment-cases-williams-v-saxbe/

In yet another case, Paulette Barnes, an administrative assistance at the Environmental Protection Agency, filed a legal complaint after her male supervisor suggested that her job would be helped if she had an affair with him, only to have him threaten to fire her if she refused.Her case led to an appeals court decision in 1977 that sexual harassment constituted a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-12-04/sexual-harassment-naming-it-paved-the-way-to-legal-victories

The very first day on her job the white boss of Maxine Munford a Black American asked her, “if she would make love to a white man, and if she would slap his face if he made a pass at her.” She was fired when she refused his advances. The charges against her boss brought about one of Michigan’sfirst and most progressive  state laws against sexual harassment, passed in 1980.


That same year, Willie Ruth Hawkins won the first successful case involving harassment by a coworker—a white man who said he “wished slavery days would return so that he could sexually train her and she would be his bitch.https://daily.jstor.org/the-pioneers-in-the-fight-against-sexual-harassment/

In August 1977, Sandra Bundy, a vocational rehabilitation specialist at the DC Department of Correctionsfiled suit against the department contending that promotions had been delayed and denied her specifically because she had refused sexual advances. Her case led to a 1981 ruling which established that it is possible to bring a sexual-harassment claim under Title VII even if the harassment does not result in loss of job. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1979/04/26/judge-finds-sexual-harassment-on-job-a-game/6ce34882-3de9-4426-ae72-4e91f583b9a7/?utm_term=.9e4cc3be7479

Despite the impact of these landmark cases and legal victories,showing that African Americans have been in the movement against sexual harassment since the early 1970’s, it is evident that the issue still remains a problem. Anita Hill has expressed her pleasure and gratitude at being asked to lead the newly formedCommission on Sexual Harassment, a position that she may have landed as a symbolic sop to Cerberus. or a gesture of atonement, taking into full consideration the manner in which she was treated during the hearing, the fact that there were others long before her appearance on the sexual harassment scene who fought equally hard and brought about significant changes in the way employee and employer relate to each other in the work environment.

It is blatantly apparent that the true pioneers of the sexual harassment movement, the African Americans have been omitted, seemingly because they neither fit into a certain social mold nor possess certain attributes.  The majority of Harvey Weinstein accusers were high profile celebrities with fame and status almost equal to that of his. While White America may be happy with the fact that sexual harassment has been identified and is now on the road to extermination, nevertheless she should also remember those who played a part right from the start. Other female African Americans paved the way and they all should have their say. Anita Hill may now be bold but her story has already been told.

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  • Hermina  On 01/08/2018 at 1:00 am

    White America at her best once again. Anita Hill is no heroine. She must take her place in the line. She may head the Sexual Harssment Commission but avoid omission of the trailblazers.
    I agree with you Yvonne that the position she got is to be seen as a token of remorse especially since the apologies of Joe Biden and also Clarence Thomas’ wife have been thrown into the mix. Thanks to Harvey Werinstein for they may have forgotten her completely. Who can forget the denigratory grilling that she got during the hearing from guys like Arlen Specter, Joe Biden, Alan Simpson, Orin Hatch to name or shame a few. Also the terms used during the heraing, ” a little nutty, and a little bit slutty” especially since she remained in contact with Clarence even after she was no longer in his employ.
    She is no heroine . She must wait in line. She may head the Sexual Harassment Commission but not at the expense of the trailblazers’ omission. Theywere at the start and must always play a part.

    Thanks Ms. Sam for a wonderful well-written and informative read.


  • crossad  On 01/08/2018 at 2:26 am

    Very interesting point of view Yvonne. Her case was one of many. I listed most of the important sexual harassment case through the years.

    New York City Sexual Harassment Attorney – https://discriminationandsexualharassmentlawyers.com/aop/new-york-city-sexual-harassment-attorneys/

    Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Attorney – https://discriminationandsexualharassmentlawyers.com/aop/new-york-city-sexual-harassment-attorneys/pennsylvania-philadelphia-sexual-harassment-attorneys-sexual-harassment-lawyer/

    Derek Smith Law Group
    One Penn Plaza, Suite 4905
    New York City, NY 10119

  • Yvonne Sam  On 01/08/2018 at 4:56 am

    Fine. Now you have insight into others that were before Anita’s, with equally lurid sexual details, and done by white perpetrators. Cases that brought about significant civil rights and workplace environment changes right across the legal spectrum, details of which pales in comparison to those reported by her.
    In seeking glory one must tell the whole story. We cannot allow it to be a Commission of Omission.

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