Up Front


Catharine A. MacKinnon was there at the creation of the sexual harassment law. In the mid-1970s, no such legal concept existed, but MacKinnon, now 45, decided the way to remedy this problem was through the sex-discrimination provision of the Civil Rights Act off 964. Her research led to her seminal 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women. In 1986 she was co-counsel on the first sexual harassment case to reach the Supreme Court. A professor at the University of Michigan Law School, MacKinnon talked with reporter Peggy Brawley.

What is sexual harassment?

In its broadest definition, it is sexual pressure that you are not in a position to refuse. In its verbal form, it includes a working environment that is saturated with sexual innuendos, propositions, advances. Other forms include leering, for example, at a woman’s breasts while she talks, or staring up her skirt while she is bending over to get files. In its physical form, it includes unwanted sexual touching and rape.

When was sexual harassment first recognized as a legal concept?

There were earlier cases, but the breakthrough occurred in 1977 when the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided that Paulette Barnes was discriminated against when her government job was abolished in retaliation for her refusal to grant sexual favors to her boss. The Barnes case established that sexual harassment is sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. The 1986 Supreme Court case not only ratified the Barnes result but recognized as well that sexual harassment also encompasses a sexually hostile working environment.

How does a woman prove she has been subjected to harassment?

A woman may have kept records or confided in friends, or she may have exhibited behavior—she may act upset, for example—consistent with having been aggressed against sexually. But the primary evidence is what the woman says happened.

But if all she has is her word, isn’t she in a very difficult position?

Unfortunately, yes. It is very difficult for a woman to go up against a man’s denial. Based on my experience with complaints at all levels, the rule of thumb is that it takes at least three women who are victims to counteract the simple stonewalling of a man. In matters of sexual abuse, women have one third of a man’s credibility, at best.

It must be hard, then, for a woman to come forward with complaints of sexual harassment?

It was clearly difficult for Anita Hill. It should be noted that most of the women who have brought forward claims that have advanced the laws of sexual harassment have been black. Because racism is often sexualized, black women have been particularly clear in identifying this behavior as a violation of their civil rights.

Do you think Professor Hills appearance before the Judiciary Committee will encourage other women to come forward?

I don’t know how many women will want to be subjected to the kind of brutal cross-examination Professor Hill withstood with such grace. Still, I think more women will see that Anita Hill did survive and will understand that what she did she did for all women. They will see that if they come forward with these kinds of allegations, they will not only survive but change the world for women, like she did.


“Some people might try to trivialize sexual harassment by saying it’s just a misunderstanding between men and women,” says Deborah Tannen, 46, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and this year’s McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University. “I don’t think it is a misunderstanding.” But the author of the 1990 best-seller You Just Don’t Understand—Women and Men in Conversation does believe that men and women interpret sexual harassment in ways that are often stunningly different. She described her perception of the rift to reporter Brawley.

How do men and women differ in their view of sexual harassment?

There is a tendency for men to feel “She wasn’t fired. She wasn’t hit. It’s not that big a deal.” Actions are what count for men, not words. Women seem to give more emphasis than men to the power of words, and they expend great effort to avoid conflict and confrontation or hurting anyone’s feelings.

And men don I get this?

I think it is truly difficult for men to understand that what is possible and easy for them is not easy for the typical woman. Often men don’t realize how difficult it is for women to stand up for themselves, to oppose someone’s will, introduce conflict into the conversation. This becomes more extreme in a work situation, where you’ve got your job and future at stake.

How do men and women view talking about sex?

On the whole, most men find talk about sex titillating. Most women find it intimidating, especially in a work situation, where a woman wants to be taken seriously as a professional and talk about sex is compromising to her. It reminds everyone present that she is, first of all, a woman and, secondly, vulnerable.

Are men aware of this?

When men introduce the topic of sex to catch women off guard and make them uncomfortable, they know they are doing it. But they think it’s fair play. They think a woman should know how to defend herself, to respond with a snappy comeback—and if she doesn’t, that’s just fine. Men constantly use language to give themselves the upper hand. Men are used to doing this, but women are not. Instead, women often take verbal assaults personally. Because women live with an awareness of the possibility of actual male violence, they perceive an element of threat—even of rape—in such talk. It’s not necessarily something women think of consciously, but it’s always there.

Furthermore, it would not be unusual for a woman to be offended and not let on. She might just smile and seem to be taking it pretty well. Yet underneath she may be seething.

Some senators on the Judiciary Committee were puzzled that Anita Hill’s friends did not suggest that, if she was being harassed, she should take formal action.

Again, the matter points to gender differences. When a woman tells a trouble to a friend, she typically seeks understanding and comfort, not advice. Men, typically, hear the statement of a problem as a request for a solution.

Did anything good come out of the Judiciary Committee hearings?

Although the hearings reinforced some misconceptions about sexual harassment, the consciousness-raising that has been going on during the last couple of weeks has been awesome. I think for the first time ever people are really trying to understand how men and women respond to these issues.

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