NEW YORK >> Back in 1979, Karen Schneider was an entry-level copy editor in her 20s when a senior editor at her newspaper offered her a ride after some late-night drinks with colleagues. At her destination, he locked the car door and forcibly kissed her.
Terrified, she managed to get away. She subsequently told her boyfriend about what happened — and no one else.
“I didn’t know what sexual harassment was. I didn’t know that what he did was actually illegal,” Schneider recalled in a recent phone interview. “All I knew was that I was scared and deeply worried about my career, because this man was in a position of authority and I was a very eager young journalist.”
The recent wave of sexual misconduct allegations, costing dozens of prominent men their jobs and reputations, shows that experiences like Schneider’s remain common in American workplaces. But even as the problem persists, there is far more public awareness now of sexual harassment and far more recourse for victims, compared with the decades before the 1990s.
Schneider remained at the Hartford Courant for five more years after the kiss, keeping her secret. She later worked for other news and advocacy organizations and is now vice president of communications for the National Women’s Law Center, which is assisting women speaking out about harassment.
“There has been greater recognition that sexual harassment is against the law and should not be tolerated,” Schneider said. “But there are many industries and offices where people are still afraid to speak out.”
Technically, sexual harassment became illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on sex discrimination, but it took three more decades of court rulings to establish the current concepts of what it entails and how to address it. Gillian Thomas, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who has written on the topic, said the term “sexual harassment” wasn’t even coined until 1975.
A turning point in public awareness came in 1991, when sexual harassment was the focus of Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
There also were pivotal Supreme Court rulings, including one in 1986 declaring that a “hostile working environment” could constitute sexual harassment, whether or not an aggrieved employee suffered economic harm by being fired or denied promotion. In 1993, the high court said employees could prevail in harassment cases without having to prove they suffered psychological damage. In 1998, a pair of Supreme Court rulings prompted many employers to adopt anti-harassment policies and formalize mechanisms for employees to lodge confidential complaints.
The legal system remains tilted in favor of the employer, Thomas said, “but at least there’s a vocabulary now for talking about these issues.”
There was no such vocabulary in New York City’s all-male fire department in 1982, when a lawsuit filed by Brenda Berkman forced the department to revise its physical exam so it was possible for women to pass.
Berkman, who retired in 2006 with the rank of captain, said she and the other 39 pioneering women encountered harassment even during probationary training.
“There was abuse not only by instructors, but also by our fellow male trainees,” Berkman said. “That’s beyond the pale — these guys are on probation and felt they had a license to assault their peers.”
In the early ’90s, Berkman went public with allegations that a fire department physician had groped her breasts during an exam. Other women lodged similar complaints, but it took more than a year before the doctor was charged with misconduct and resigned.
“Whether it was 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago, whenever sexual assault happens, one of the hardest things for the women who survived is that nobody believes them,” Berkman said.
The fire department, over 35 years, has made modest strides in accommodating women — there are now 68, the highest number ever, out of a force of 11,000.
Another veteran of the sex-harassment wars is Teresa Wilson, a 65-year-old nurse in Nashville, Tennessee. It was her case, alleging sustained sexual harassment by her boss in the mid-1980s, that led to the important 1993 Supreme Court ruling.
Wilson, at the time named Teresa Harris, was a manager at Forklift Systems, a construction equipment rental company. She alleged that Forklift’s president often subjected her to sexist remarks and sexual overtures, sometimes in the presence of other employees.
The most hurtful incident, she recalled, was when he asserted in crude language that her sales figures were good because she was having sex with her customers.
Lower courts rebuffed the lawsuit, agreeing with the company that the boss’s behavior did not affect Wilson psychologically or impair her ability to work.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, its first female justice — Sandra Day O’Connor — authored a unanimous opinion rejecting the premise that harassment can be penalized only if proven to have caused substantial psychological harm. Thanks to that ruling, Wilson obtained an out-of-court settlement with Forklift; the terms have not been released.
Wilson is heartened by the multitude of harassment victims now speaking out.
“It’s about time,” she said.
Harassment and sexism were problems in many sectors, including academia.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says relatively few women had that job back in the early 1970s. When they’d get together at conferences, conversation would inevitably turn to which male colleagues acted inappropriately.
“We had what we called a lech list, men who would prey on women,” MacManus said — which colleagues would try to grab women at bars, which married men sought to hook up for casual sex during conferences.
MacManus said she never was physically harassed but felt gender discrimination in regard to promotions and opportunities. As a graduate student, she said, one of her professors came on to her.
She still sees such behavior — male professors exploiting their best students because they have power over them in terms of grades and recommendations.
“I’m very sad that women still have to put up with this,” she said.