In New York City, sexual harassment is viewed as unlawful sex discrimination under federal, state, and municipal law. The past year has seen numerous instances of workplace sexual harassment finally seeing some measure of attention and, in some cases, justice. For all the progress that we have seen recently, it is worth remembering that nationwide recognition of sexual harassment as a violation of antidiscrimination laws first occurred just over thirty years ago, and that the term “sexual harassment” itself is barely forty years old. A group of women in New York coined the term in 1975, in support of a woman who quit her job because of a male supervisor’s alleged unwelcome sexual advances.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of several factors, including sex. A series of court decisions have expanded the definition of “discrimination on the basis of sex” to include two sexual harassment scenarios. First, “quid pro quo sexual harassment” involves demands for some sort of sexual activity by a supervisor or manager, either as a condition for obtaining employment or as a condition for continued employment or employment benefits. Second, a “hostile work environment” occurs when a worker is subjected to unwanted sexual conduct, ranging from jokes or comments to outright assault, which interferes with their ability to perform their job duties. It took years of advocacy and litigation to get legal recognition of these claims.
Before sexual harassment had a name, women had no clear way to push back against such behavior by bosses and coworkers. The television show Mad Men might have been a “historical drama,” but the history it portrayed is very recent. In 1975, a woman quit her job at Cornell University after enduring years of unwanted advances from her boss, including alleged acts that might be deemed sexual assault today. She filed for unemployment benefits, but was denied after the university asserted that she quit for “personal reasons.” A group of women employed by the university rallied to her defense, founding a group called Working Women United. The group held meetings at which women shared their workplace experiences. The term “sexual harassment” appeared out of these meetings.