In 1909 Rose Schneiderman, a worker in a New York City ladies’ garment factory, approached the factory foreman. He had been pinching the young women who worked for him and they were unhappy about it. Like most women at the time, they (being mostly young, recent immigrants and poor) believed their only option was to endure the abuse if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Schneiderman, however, confronted him. He, in turn, expressed surprise at their discomfort. “But they are like my children.” Schneiderman did not miss a beat. “Then they would prefer to be orphans.”
Sexual harassment, ranging from pinching to rape and other serious physical violence, has been a historical aspect of women’s work experience. Few workers had someone like Schneiderman to speak for them. The responses of perpetrators often reflected the surprise of this foreman (“I didn’t mean it that way”) or blamed the victim (“they asked for it”.)
The law ignored this aspect of women’s lives until after the Civil Rights legislation of 1964. Taking lessons from the Civil Rights Movement, women filed the first sexual harassment cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In 1972, Catharine McKinnon wrote Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in which she articulated what women were beginning to understand: that sexual harassment was more than just a pervasive and shared aspect of women’s experience. It went far beyond discomfort, or even fear for personal safety. It was a form of power that solidified work roles, effectively keeping women “in their place.” Sexual harassment maintained gender hierarchies in the world of work with economic implications for all women, cutting across race and class.
From agricultural fields to industrial sweatshops to construction sites to federal buildings; from Rose Schneiderman to Anita Hill, this has been an insidious reality of life. A friend recently noted, “In the seventies when I was beginning to work here in Fresno, we didn’t have any recourse. It [sexual harassment] happened and we just had to ‘suck it up.’”
But no more.
In April 1978, the Labor Department adopted the first regulations against harassment based on sex. In the ensuing years, the courts have overseen many cases and legislation has been enacted. Two years ago on September 30, Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 1825, which requires all employers with more than 50 employees to provide two hours of training every two years for all supervisors. Sarah Reyes sponsored this bill, arguing that current laws did not do enough to eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace. The legislation went into full effect this year.
So why bring up the topic now? Why talk about the historical context of sexual harassment at all? We know it happened. We know that now there are laws to combat it. We get tired of hearing about it.
Because, as workplaces have begun to implement this training, I hear people state that they are afraid. Afraid to pat someone on the back for a job well done. Afraid to touch another person because the intent might be misconstrued. Afraid that some word or phrase they use might be heard as harassment.
When the focus shifts to fears of false accusations, context is diminished or lost altogether. And for sexual harassment, as with most things, understanding context is vital. There is a history of workplace harassment and, more recently, a story of the struggle to provide legal recourse when harassment occurs.
The legislation and training that many decry has a reason for existence. Laws have been enacted because women lived in fear, degradation and economic depravation. These laws came about at great expense. Read about Maxine Mumford or Margaret Miller. Ask the Chicana Service Action Center in Los Angeles about the construction worker whose thumbs were smashed when she refused to “suck it up.”
It is important to know and understand the context out of which the laws grew. The need for laws on harassment did not drop out of nowhere. They have been enacted because women have known that their choices in the face of harassment were limited: accept it or suffer the consequences. Sexual harassment training is about making the workplace safe for everyone. Any fear someone might feel in the face of sexual harassment training is nothing compared to the fear that women endured.
AB1825 helps assure safety in the workplace for everyone. And if that means that people have to think twice before they pat someone on the back, then that’s how it is.
Hope Nisly is acquisitions librarian at Fresno Pacific University and is on the steering committee of the Reedley Peace Center.