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Until 1975, ‘Sexual Harassment’ Was the Menace With No Name

January 8, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Part of the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York. (Credit: Jonathan Jay Fink/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Rain poured down in Ithaca, New York, but the women who streamed into the Greater Ithaca Activities Center on May 4, 1975 weren’t daunted by a bit of weather. Hundreds of women packed into the modest room. Then they began to speak about their experiences being groped and sexually exploited at work.

For journalist-turned activist Lin Farley, the event was life changing. “The solidarity that women felt for one another was contagious,” she later wrote. “No longer did they have to explain to their friends and family that ‘he hit on me and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I had to quit.’ What he did had a name.”

Attendees spoke of professors, restaurant guests, factory workers, executives—men who turned their workplaces into private hells. They talked about how their bosses pinched them, groped them, and how their coworkers looked the other way when they were harassed. Humiliated, intimidated and bullied, many of these women had lost jobs when they turned down their bosses’ sexual advances. And they were fed up.

As they spoke, these women used a new term: sexual harassment. Until just a few weeks before, the term didn’t even exist. But thanks to Farley and the consciousness-raising efforts of the 1970s women’s movement, the newly coined term would not just help women give voice to their experiences: It would change U.S. law and life in the workplace.

“Working women immediately took up the phrase, which finally captured the sexual coercion they were experiencing daily,” she later wrote in The New York Times.

In 1974, Farley—a devoted feminist who lived in a radical lesbian separatist commune—was hired by Cornell University to teach a class on women and work. At the time, universities all over the country were working to catch up with the burgeoning women’s movement. Cornell was a hotbed for feminist thought and the first university in the U.S. to offer an accredited course in women’s studies. But something was awry at the university, Farley learned—it was also a hotbed for sexual harassment.

Part of the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York. (Credit: Jonathan Jay Fink/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

In 1975, Carmita Wood, an administrator in Cornell’s department of physics, approached …read more


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