A Short History of the Long Fight Against Workplace Sexual Harassment

We owe our current "moment of reckoning" to women like Eleanor Holmes Norton, a civil rights icon who held the first public hearings on sexism and discrimination in the US. Broadly spoke to Norton about how we got from there to where we are today.
Eleanor Holmes Norton in 1971. Photo by Richard Gummere / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

Carmita Wood’s boss wouldn’t leave her alone. He touched her under her shirt, cornered her in the elevator and kissed her, and pushed her up against her desk with his body. The stress got to be too much, so in 1975 she quit her job as an administrative assistant at Cornell University. Afterwards, she was denied unemployment because her reasons for leaving were deemed “personal.”

Cornell professor Lin Farley caught wind of the woman’s situation and, while preparing for a speak out with a group of other woman professors, came up with a term for us to talk about what had happened: sexual harassment. Later that year, Farley traveled to New York City to testify in a public hearing on women’s issues in the United States, planned by the NYC Commission on Human Rights. There, she publicly used the new language for the first time: "Sexual harassment of women in their place of employment is extremely widespread. It is literally epidemic," she said. The New York Times quoted her in a headline, and the term stuck.


This development came after years of legal work: In March of 1970, 46 women who worked at Newsweek magazine filed an official complaint against the publication’s owners that read, “We allege that women at Newsweek are systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and are forced to assume a subsidiary role simply because they are women.”

The magazine had just published a cover story on the emergence of the feminist movement titled “Women in Revolt,” which was written by female freelancer because its own management had an unwritten policy of keeping women in researcher roles and leaving the reporter jobs for men. So, Eleanor Holmes Norton, then the assistant legal director of the ACLU, encouraged the women to issue a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, which grew into the United States’ first lawsuit suing for gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The statute basically says that employers cannot discriminate against their workers based on race, religion, or sex—although sex was only famously added at the very last minute. Until then, it had primarily been used in lawsuits concerning race.

By August, the magazine agreed in a written statement to accelerate the promotion of its women employees, settling the case and setting an important precedent for women’s rights in the workplace.

Joy Bryant as Eleanor Holmes Norton in Good Girls Revolt.

By 1970, Norton, who is now a congresswoman, was appointed as the first woman chair of the New York City Human Rights Commission. Her inaugural move was to hold the first-ever series of public hearings on sexism and women’s rights in the US. Those hearings laid the grounds for conversations and lawsuits on sex discrimination today—including sexual harassment—and helped to catalyze a growing feminist movement that would radically shape American gender politics. (Norton was behind the 1975 hearing at which Lin Farley first spoke about sexual harassment and named it as such.)


Before her tenure at the Human Rights Commission, "there had not been any hearings on women’s issues and women’s rights at all," Norton tells Broadly. "Just think about it: We’re talking about 1970 or so, the notion that there had never been hearings at the national or local level for that reason!”

Women at the forefront of various aspects of an emerging women’s movement—including Beulah Sanders, Dorothy Height, Betty Friedan, Margaret Mead, and Gloria Steinem—traveled to New York from all over the country for the opportunity to publicly testify on behalf of women’s rights. And the resulting report containing their stories was so immense that it was turned into a book entitled Women’s Role in Contemporary Society. “That’s just how novel it was to have a hearing on women’s issues,” says Norton.

In 1977, Norton became the first female chair of the Equal Opportunities Employment Commission, where she served until 1981. “When I arrived there, sexual harassment had not been defined as a form of discrimination in the workplace,” she says. “Now, that’s pretty awful.” Norton quickly got to work amending that, and in 1980, the EOEC released a set of regulations officially defining sexual harassment at work as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII, outlining exactly what that looks like and what actions should be taken against it. In the following years, a number of lawsuits, mostly brought forth by black woman plaintiffs, set winning precedents for the use of those regulations in court.


Eleanor Holmes Norton being sworn in by President Jimmy Carter alongside Patricia Derian and Virginia McCarty. Via Wikimedia Commons.

But it wasn’t until Anita Hill famously testified on live television against Clarence Thomas in 1991—claiming that he had repeatedly come on to her, despite her explicit refusal of his advances—that the phrase “sexual harassment” really became commonplace. Thomas, who was then a federal Circuit Judge, was set to become a Supreme Court Justice when a group of seven women lawmakers, including Norton, busted into the Senate and demanded that they first hear Hill’s allegations against him. Ultimately, the all-white, all-male senate judiciary committee never called upon Hill’s coworker witnesses, believed Thomas’ denials, and voted to confirm him. A controversy followed, in which Thomas and his supporters painted Hill as a delusional liar bent on ruining Thomas’ career. But after that case, sexual harassment complaints to the EOEC more than doubled. The following year, an astonishing number of women were elected to Congress. The media collectively—and generously—deemed this phenomenon the “Year of the Woman.”

Over two decades later, however, little has changed. “We are having, every few years, episodes of high-profile sexual harassment. So it means that, not withstanding the laws, something is very wrong,” says Norton. “And I suspect that where it is most wrong is really not with women who work with men in high-profile positions like the TV industry or Hollywood or Congress. I suspect—and have every reason to believe—that where sexual harassment is rampant is in the everyday workplace among women who fear for their jobs, and don’t even know, perhaps, what sexual harassment is. Nobody has done a good job in informing women, men, employers.”


On December 6, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein allegations and #MeToo, Norton returned to speak at the first New York public hearing concerning sexual harassment in the workplace since the ones she planned more than 40 years ago. The hearing, which took place at CUNY Law School and was planned by the NYC Commission on Human Rights in partnership with both the school and the New York Women’s Foundation, featured 27 public testifiers whose stories are dishearteningly similar to Wood's.

Carey Castro, a union carpenter, said she’s experienced sexual harassment at every job she’s had since her 32-year-old boss kissed her when she was 13 years old. Attorney Amy Hong testified on behalf of a client who, as an office manager at a small business, had her boss lick her, offer to help her with a headache by having sex with her, and post sexualized photos of women in the office, eventually causing her to quit. Sarah Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, testified that as a model she was routinely asked to perform sexual favors to photographers and business clients, treated like an escort, and sent to clients who were known predators. And Martha Kamber, the CEO and president of YWCA Brooklyn, noted that when she was teaching an all-girls health class at a “last stop” school for students who had dropped out of other schools, 100 percent of her students had been sexually harassed at their prior schools. “I think it’s much more pervasive than we realize.”


Carmelyn P. Malalis, the current NYC Commission of Human Rights Chair and Commissioner, designed the December 6 hearing—which she says was planned in response to a recent influx of sexual harassment complaints to the commission—to shed light on the experiences of marginalized people working in industries outside of the limelight, and often with little oversight.

“Folks who are in paid care, folks who are in cleaning and maintenance, folks who are LGBTQ, who are people of color, experience sexual harassment more because they are more vulnerable to it at certain intersections,” Malalis tells Broadly.

Eleanor Holmes Norton. Photo by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia.

Their experiences will inform a new set of recommendations soon to be put forth by the commission, outlining industry-specific ways to better implement and enforce measures combatting sexual harassment at work—which Norton notes could very well serve as a model for what Congress—which “doesn’t know up from down” on the matter—ends up implementing nationally. The commission will also be taken written testimony until the end of December.

In terms of the future, Norton stressed that sexual harassment is a much more difficult issue to address than other forms of discrimination, because it almost always takes place in private, leaving little or no evidence necessary for due process: “This requires some work that anti-discrimination issues have not required in the past, and its not happening.”

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Part of that work, she says, is figuring out how best to prevent sexual harassment in the first place, noting that many people—both employers and workers—still don’t have a clear idea of what constitutes sexual harassment and what to do about it. “If the only way you’re dealing with sexual harassment is as an enforcement after the fact,” she adds, “then you, EOEC, you, agencies throughout the country, have not grappled with your full array of possibilities.

“We have not begun to probe the many layers of this issue,” she adds, “and not until we do, will we get to the point where we are no longer seeing episodes like Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore.”