Time is up: Not just Harvey Weinstein

by Barbara Wittman on 28 February 2018

A Personal View by Dr. Barbara Wittman written in the US in early February 2018
Matriculated 1975
Archaeology 1976
Visiting Scholar 2012Barbara Wittman

Energized by Oprah Winfrey’s blistering acceptance speech at the recent Golden Globe Awards of January 7, 2018 in which she challenged women to “dare to speak the truth to the power of those men,” the opportunity presents for women in the United States to come to terms with the meaning of harassment and sexual misconduct and to determine a way forward, how we should proceed, and what we can do as individuals and collectively to stop unwanted coercion.

In the well-publicized case of Olympic gymnasts in the care of physician Larry Nassar, over one hundred women came forward at his trial in Michigan to document his extensive history of sexual misconduct. University Officials and the US Olympic Committee knew about his record of ‘medical treatment’ since 2015, but chose not to listen, investigate, or to hold him accountable. On January 26, 2018, the Guardian asked “How was Larry Nassar able to abuse so many gymnasts for so long?” The answers are complex.  Recall that it took almost a century of campaigning in this country before women received the right to vote. The highly publicized cases of Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and a long list of celebrity abusers have raised public awareness of harassment and galvanized women in their long struggle for gender equality. I attempt to extend our understanding of this query by reviewing the literature on the legal meaning of sexual harassment and United States civil law before turning to the more complex dynamic of power relationships and options available to women who have been victimized or face the potential for abuse of a criminal nature.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defined sexual harassment as a gender-based civil offense characterized by unwanted or unwelcome advances of a sexual nature and without consent, that objectifies, assaults, demeans, or humiliates. Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College defines sexual harassment in schools as “gender violence acted out in public,” characterized by crude sexually based jokes, looks, gestures, and touching. The Wisconsin Coalition against Sexual Assault defines sexual harassment with an even wider brush from “undressing a person with one’s eyes,” “Questioning a woman’s judgement or decisions because “she’s a woman” to “talking about sexually explicit movies or TV shows.”  General harassment defined as disrespect, ostracizing, ridicule, belittling or bullying up to the point of physical harm or threat is not illegal in the United States.  For women, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lacked teeth until the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson brought before the Court on June 19, 1986, by Mechelle Vinson, a teller-trainee against her harasser, bank vice-president Sidney Taylor, that gender sexual harassment was unacceptable and a violation of the earlier Civil Rights Act and “was sufficiently pervasive and created a hostile work environment.”

In 1991, Anita Hill documented her abuse by Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court nomination.  Although two-thirds of Americans doubted her allegations and Thomas was confirmed to the court bench, it was widely anticipated that women would not come forward to report their harassment in the aftermath of Hill’s testimony.* To the contrary, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw an increase in complaints of harassment claims by women who came forward to name an injustice. Finally the Court acknowledged the need to act on Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 giving women the option to take legal action with litigation against unwelcome sexual advances that create a hostile or discriminatory workplace environment. 

Twenty-five years on, the battle for women’s equality is a work in progress and far from over. Fifty- three years after workplace sexual harassment became illegal, EEOC courts are in many cases ineffective and are stacked against women. While companies have adopted harassment policies, harassment still happens daily. Fearing retaliation, job loss, or physical violence, women are reluctant to report their abuse. The extent of criminal activity by Harvey Weinstein and company has unleashed a torrent of accounts by women fed up with male posturing and the need to prove one’s masculinity by objectifying women and girls. Will the cultural landscape change for women?  If we rid ourselves of one Weinstein, are we still trapped by patriarchy and patriarchal culture that reinforces traditional attitudes of male aggression and gender violence as acceptable, permissible, and at the end of the day, ‘men rule.’ Mr. Trump’s offensive brand of male behavior has galvanized women on several fronts, the #MeToo campaign, the Women’s March on Washington, and the dramatic push-back by black women voters against Roy Moore in Alabama. Despite the candidate’s endorsement by Trump and the Republican National Committee, black voters and the great majority black women, stormed the ballot boxes in what can only be described as a major political upset that challenged Moore’s abuse of power over women and brought him to heel. 

We are hopeful that the current discourse on harassment is part of a process of change. We have much in common with the suffragists who almost one hundred years ago struggled against formidable odds to reach their goal of equality at the ballot box.* While it will not be an easy struggle, on the positive side, women are forging communities and support structures in which awareness of harassment is part of the daily conversation. The great majority of women know their attacker, but many men are still ignorant about what is at stake: It is not a man’s right to dominate, intimidate, frighten, or control: Draw a line in the sand in no uncertain terms about what constitutes unacceptable sexual behavior, stand your ground and don’t blame yourself.  Address the subject from a position of strength, figure out what you stand for, state your position clearly, break the silence and drive your point home: STOP, NO MORE; Back Off, Cease and Desist. TIME IS UP!

*Danielle Paquette. “Not just Harvey Weinstein: The Depressing Truth about Sexual Harassment in America” Washington Post. October 12, 2017.
*New York Magazine, February 18, 2018, “Do You Believe Her Now?” Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times lays out a case for Thomas’s impeachment. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/02/the-forgotten-testimonies-against-clarence-thomas.html
* See the stunning collection of suffrage posters from the early twentieth century sent to the Cambridge University Library by Dr. Marion Phillips around 1910. http://www.cam.ac.uk/suffrage.

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