One of the first few women who won a workplace sexual harassment case discussed her personal experience fighting harassment at an event Monday.
UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion kicked off its week of events on sexual violence and sexual harassment with a panel called “Before #TimesUp and #MeToo: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Work Environment: How Black Women Shaped the Development of Sexual Harassment Law.”
The event featured women who talked about how sexual harassment went from being a concept that was not recognized by most people and the legal system to being an important part of modern social movements, as exemplified by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
One of the speakers on the panel, Sandra Bundy, was the plaintiff in the Bundy v. Jackson case in the mid-1970s, which was the first federal appeals court case to rule that workplace sexual harassment was a form of employment discrimination.
At the event, Bundy said she was sexually harassed by her boss at the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. When she took her grievances to a higher-level manager at the workplace, he sexually harassed her too, she said.
She said the sexual harassment continued and she decided to reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but no one believed her. When Bundy filed a lawsuit, she said the judge ruled against her case even though he believed her, because there was no evidence she lost any tangible workplace benefits from her harassment.
“When delivering the ruling, the judge said something along the lines of, ‘Boys will be boys,’ which diminished the actions of these men and made it seem like cultural convention,” she said.
Bundy said she continued to face discrimination at her workplace and felt unsafe. She eventually won her case in 1981 in a federal appeals court.
Pamela Price, another panelist and victim of sexual harassment, faced discrimination when she was studying at Yale University in the late 1970s. She said her professor abused his power by threatening to lower her grade unless she accepted his sexual advances.
“He kept saying he would hate to ‘Give me a C on my paper,’ which he soon followed up with a blunt, ‘Will you make love to me?'” she said.
Similar to Bundy’s case, Price said many people did not believe her when she told her story, and when she took her case to court, she lost the case and the following appeal.
Price, who is now an attorney, has represented many women in sexual harassment cases.
Catharine MacKinnon, the third guest on the panel, is the legal theorist who conceptualized harassment as sex discrimination in a paper published 1977. She said the concept of workplace discrimination based on sexual harassment did not exist as a law even though harassment was prevalent in the workplace.
“Most people dismissed these incidents of sexual harassment as just the way things are instead of acknowledging workplace discrimination,” she said.
When MacKinnon was a professor at Yale, she said one of her students experienced sexual harassment from a professor at the same time that MacKinnon was working on her theory of sexual harassment in the workplace.
This is when MacKinnon broadened her writing to also include sexual harassment in educational settings. Her works were cited in the historic federal appeals court rulings, including in the Bundy v. Jackson case and in subsequent cases in which women were sexually harassed in workplaces or in educational settings.
MacKinnon said despite the struggles she had to endure – such as having difficulty finding employment after law school due to her activism helping women fight sexual harassment – it was a battle she had to fight for other women.
“If women fight today, some woman will not need to fight in the future,” she said.