7 Women In History Who Fought Against Sexual Harassment Way Before #MeToo
Sexual harassment of women has been all over the news recently, from the Weinstein allegations (now numbering in the dozens) to the #MeToo campaign across social media to raise awareness of how many women experience harassment and assault. And all the women going public about their experiences, from the law court to Twitter, are joining a very long line of women in history who have fought back against harassment, particularly in their professional environment. This is not a new fight, by any stretch of the imagination. It's just one that now involves more modern tools. And it's depressing as hell that we're still fighting it.
The idea of sexual harassment itself might have been codified in law relatively recently, but the phenomenon has been around for a very long time. Ancient Rome had explicit laws against it: You weren't allowed to "accost, abduct or stalk" anybody, particularly women, if it was "contrary to good morals" (though, of course, this only was the case for upper class women). But explicit protections against sexual harassment, particularly for women at work, have historically been meager at best, or insulting at worst. Historians record that, for instance, in early Irish law, fines due for the rape or sexual harassment of a woman went to her father, husband or son, not to her. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. These seven incidents of fight-back against harassment in history, from slaves and servants to bank employees, demonstrate how long this has been going on — and how much, and how little, seems to have changed.
Elena de Hustwayt
If you go looking for sexual harassment legal cases in the annals of history, you come up short a great deal of the time, but every so often, women at work make their mark. In the medieval period in Europe, women's work was extremely limited compared to men's employment choices, but it included domestic employment. That's the realm where this early example of a woman going on record as fighting harassment by an employer comes from.
Legal historian Professor Gwen Seabourne uncovered an early case in England dating to 1363, far before any explicit laws about sexual harassment in the workplace were on the books. Thomas de Queldale, a cutler (someone who made silverware), sued William de Ramkill, a chaplain, over Elena de Hustwayt, whom de Queldale alleged had been contracted to work for him, and had left without proper cause to work for Ramkill instead.
Elena, however, had her defense: Queldale, she alleged, "frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam": despite being a married man, he'd constantly tried to get her to have sex with him against her will, in Latin. She'd had enough, and went to Ramkill instead.
Unfortunately for Hustwayt, the court didn't believe her, and held that she and Ramkill were guilty of her illegal departure from her job. Ramkill paid the damages, but we don't know what happened to Elena or whether she remained in Ramkill's employment. The fact that this 700-year-old series of events seems vaguely familiar is profoundly upsetting.
The experiences of female servants in European households hadn't substantially changed some 400 years after Elena de Hustwayt's case. A book for female servants, Eliza Haywood's A Present for A Servant-Maid, published in 1743, had entire sections on how to protect oneself from assault and attentions from male masters, unmarried and married. And a legal case from 1716 brings home just how little had altered.
Elizabeth Wade, a "spinster," was called to give evidence not in a legal case of her own, but to prove the reputation of a man who'd been accused of being a "fornicator." She and Martha Vose, who both had been the man's servants, proceeded to tell the court all about the man's sexual habits, in support of the prosecution.
Wade noted that the man had attempted to have sex with her multiple times, and that when her master found her in the kitchen alone, he offered her a crown to "put his hand up her skirts." She "in a passion went out of the kitchen and left him, asking him if he took her to be a common whore." Vose, a widow, fared worse. She recorded that after getting her drunk, the man had raped her, and in 1715 she gave birth to his child. He'd turned her out and offered her £10 — roughly $350 today — if she would say the child was fathered by somebody else. While going on record didn't do the women themselves any material good, it put their experiences into the public eye, and must have taken an enormous amount of courage in those times.
Harriet Ann Jacobs
Slave women in history have rarely, if ever, had any power when attempting to assert their dignity in the face of harassment, assault, or rape. Harriet Ann Jacobs, an American slave in the 1800s, was an exception: she devised a plan to escape her master, and then published Incidents in the Life Of A Slave Girl in 1861, laying out the sexual violence she had experienced as a slave.
Jacobs' story is deservedly famous: she tried to avoid the sexual advances of her master, Dr. James Norcom, who had begun to pursue her at the age of 15, by getting pregnant by another unmarried and sympathetic white man, in the hope that this would result in Norcom selling her. Unfortunately, despite bearing two children, the plan didn't work, and Jacobs would escape Norcom only by hiding in a miniature crawlspace for seven years. Though her book was eclipsed by the Civil War breaking out when it was first published, it re-emerged in the 1970s as one of the most important documents in American literary history, and one of the most brutal records of a woman's attempts to escape sexual coercion in history.
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott is now deservedly famous for the book Little Women, but in 1874, as an adult, she also published an account of the sexual coercion and injustice she'd suffered as a domestic servant at the age of 18 in the household of an unnamed family. Alcott's Work: A Story Of Experience is rare in that it has a happy ending: Alcott escapes, despite the best attempts of her male boss, and survives to record his abuses publicly.
Alcott's experience, she writes, occurred while she was a paid companion for a "Mrs. R." for a month. However, she hadn't realized that she was also under the employment of Mr. R., the woman's brother. He began inviting her into his study every night, and when she refused the invitations, sought her out in the kitchen.
I brandished a scrubbing brush, as I indignantly informed him that I came to be a companion to his sister, not to him, and I should keep that post or none. "I offer you lighter tasks and you refuse them,'' he said, to which she replied, ''But I don't like the tasks, and consider them much worse than hard work.''
Mr. R, she writes, had his revenge by making her do a lot of heavy chores, until she became so fed up that she left. Alcott was lucky in that she was able to leave and also able to put up resistance. Many other domestic workers didn't have the same opportunities.
Grace Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge
"In 1908," Professor Reva Siegel writes in the introduction to Directions In Sexual Harassment Law, "settlement workers Grace Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge took a saloon-keeper to court who fired a young barmaid when he discovered that she was about to bear a child by him." It was one of the first cases of its kind, not least because of the lawyers themselves: Abbott and Breckinridge were among the first women to pass the bar in America, and would go on to be pioneering feminist social workers and legal minds. The woman in question was an immigrant named Bozena who had come to America from Bohemia, what is now the Czech Republic.
The lawyers encountered sexism even on the way to the courtroom; a male lawyer told Breckinridge, as they accompanied Bozena to hear the case, that "this just isn't a fit place for women like you. It's a terrible case for you to hear." It's recorded that they lost the case because the judge "empathized with the defendant more than the victim" and the charge was one that would have sent him to jail. (Sound familiar?) Abbott and Breckinridge, infuriated by their loss, would go on to become lifelong activists. Bozena, as Grace Abbott's sister Edith records in her memoirs, gave birth to a baby girl, was supported by Breckinridge and Abbott at their organization Hull House, took English classes, and would eventually marry a farmer and settle down happily.
"The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that sexual harassment of an employee by a supervisor violates the Federal law against sex discrimination in the workplace," the New York Times announced in 1986. The fact that this landmark decision took place a mere 31 years ago boggles the mind, and it's all thanks to the courage of a woman named Mechelle Vinson, who pursued her case about harassment and assault by her supervisor all the way to the top.
Vinson sued Meritor Savings Bank after being terminated, alleging that her direct supervisor, Sidney Taylor, had raped her on multiple occasions, and that she had maintained a sexual relationship with him fearing that refusal would mean dismissal. When the case entered the Supreme Court, it produced a new definition of sexual harassment in the workplace: both quid pro quo (harassment that demands sexual favors in return for employment or benefits) and non quid pro quo (harassment that creates a "hostile or offensive working environment"). Vinson would eventually settle out of court, and her courage continues to shape the legal fights of harassment fights today.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.