A Brief History of How Sexual Harassment Became Unlawful Employment Discrimination

Legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace are still relatively new in the American justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court case that first established sexual harassment as a form of unlawful gender discrimination, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), is less than thirty years old. The event that probably first brought the issue of sexual harassment to the entire nation’s attention, Anita Hill’s testimony at the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, occurred just over twenty years ago. While the legal system has made tremendous strides forward in the protection of workers, sexual harassment and hostile work environments continue to be a serious problem for countless people. It is worth remembering how recently these changes began.

A recent documentary entitled Anita tells the story of Hill’s testimony before the U.S. Senate. In 1991, the first President George Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Per the Constitution, Thomas’ nomination required Senate approval. Hill, who was a University of Oklahoma law professor at the time, was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee after a report of an FBI interview with Hill was leaked to the press.

Hill had worked as an assistant to Thomas in the early 1980’s at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She testified that Thomas repeatedly asked her out, and that he would discuss sexual topics with her at work, ranging from films with sexual content to personal details about his own sex life. Hill faced significant backlash for her testimony, with one journalist describing her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Many Senators questioned her as though she were on trial. Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he remains today, but Hill’s testimony managed to bring far greater attention than ever before to the issue of workplace sexual harassment.

At the time of Hill’s testimony, broad federal protections against employment discrimination had been around for less than thirty years, and the first Supreme Court case applying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to sexual harassment was just over five years old. The plaintiff in Meritor Savings Bank worked for the defendant bank for four years, advancing from teller to branch manager in that time. After the bank fired her for excessive sick leave, she sued, alleging that the bank’s vice president constantly sexually harassed her by demanding sexual contact, touching her inappropriately, exposing himself to her, and raping her on several occasions. She stated that she went along with the harassment for fear of losing her job.

The trial court ruled against her, but the appellate court reversed, holding that two types of sexual harassment may violate Title VII: that which conditions “concrete employment benefits on sexual favors,” and that which “creates a hostile or offensive working environment” even without “affecting economic benefits.” Meritor, 477 U.S. at 62. The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court, holding that the language of Title VII extends beyond mere economic harm to include “the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women,” id. at 64, and that the EEOC’s guidelines justifiably classify sexual harassment as gender discrimination under federal law.

The employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates represent the rights of workers in New York City and surrounding areas in claims of unlawful sexual harassment and discrimination. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a knowledgeable advocate, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

Lawsuit Alleges Sexual Harassment by Executive of New York City Healthcare Company, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 22, 2014
New York Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Claims Boss Required Plaintiff to Accompany Him to the Restroom, New York Employment Attorney Blog, May 15, 2014
Lawsuit Accuses Jewelry Retailer of Sexual Harassment, Gender Discrimination, New York Employment Attorney Blog, April 26, 2014

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