Breaking the Silence – #MeToo and the Reclaiming of the Feminist Framing of Sexual Harassment

By Nicole Colaianni

In December 2017, Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year. It was the first time the magazine honored a group instead of just one person with the title. The magazine’s intention was to both celebrate these women (and some men) as individuals as well as the larger #MeToo movement of which they were a part. Ashley Judd, Alyssa Milano, Tarana Burke, and many more had publicly recounted their experiences and encouraged others to speak up against sexual violence, misconduct, and harassment in their places of work (Langone 2018; North 2018; Dastagir 2019). The silence was broken. In this paper I will identify three frameworks of sexual harassment which have been in steady competition with each other over the last four decades. I borrow the terms framework and frame from social movement theory. These terms are used interchangeably and refer to how a topic is charged with different norms, ideologies and meanings within a certain discourse space. Frameworks are heavily influenced by and perpetuate the wider world view held by those within the discourse space in question ideas (Hellmann 1998: 70-72; Ryan 1991:220f). In this essay, these spaces are large, which necessarily brings with it the danger of generalization but at the same time sheds light on trends and overarching ideas. The afore mentioned frameworks of sexual harassment that have shaped American’s understandings of sexual harassment are the feminist, the social conservative and the management frames. Despite the public attention devoted to sexual harassment as a polarized issue, with progressive feminists on the one side and social conservatives on the other, pre-2017, most Americans engaged with the topic of sexual harassment for the first time in their place of work (Lublin 1981: 1; Zipple 2006: 49, 161f). My research shows that the content presented to employees in internal workshops, policies, and procedures often followed and follows the same framework; one that I call the management frame. I argue that this management frame has contributed largely to the silencing of sexual harassment survivors and in turn has motivated many to reclaim the feminist framing of the issue. Sexual harassment is a topic that has risen to the surface of public attention several times over the last five decades. It first appeared as a political issue in the context of second wave feminism in the 1970s and has continued bobbing up and down in the ripples and subsequent waves of feminism. In 1975, a group of women calling themselves Working Women United (WWU) held the first speak-out on sexual harassment in the workplace. In 1986, the United States Supreme Court concurred with many lower courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee (EEOC) that sexual harassment constituted sex discrimination and was therefore illegal under title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In 1991, Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas alleging sexual harassment shook the nation (Baker 2008: 37f, 40; Herzog 1997: 45; Dobbin 2009: 202). In 1989, the American Bar Association Journal had even published an article on “Breaking the Silence – Sexual Harassment in Law Firms” (Burleigh and Goldberg 1989: 47-52). Why then, almost two decades later, was there still a silence to break?

Anita Hill testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, October 11, 1991.

In order to answer this, we need to take a closer look at different phases and frameworks in the movement against sexual harassment. In the 1970s sexuality in the workplace was not something spoken about, unless in the context of a joke or romantic advice for unmarried women (Berebitsky 2012: 66f, 206).  It was not until 1975 that WWU coined the term sexual harassment and defined the issues as “any repeated and unwanted sexual comments, looks, suggestions, or physical contact that [the harassed individual] find[s] objectionable or offensive and [that] cause […] [them] discomfort on [their] job” (Baker 2008: 33f).Over the next five years, WWU and a handful of other organizations and activists, such as the Boston-based Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, spent their time and resources on assisting individual women in their fight against sexual harassment, creating a political platform for the issue, pursuing media attention and on developing a comprehensive theoretical framework of and legal argument against the issue. By 1980, several of the nations largest news papers had run articles on the issue, the first courts ruled in favor or plaintiffs confirming that sexual harassment was indeed sex discrimination and the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee issued guidelines on sexual harassment which were sent out to every employer with over fifteen employees.

There was no doubt in the feminist framework that sexual harassment constituted a problem warranting serious consideration and political action.In their efforts to raise awareness for the problem, activists conducted surveys to highlight the quantitative extent of the problem (Baker 2008:33f). Furthermore, establishing sexual harassment as an issue based on expressions of power rather than misplaced sexual urges or even bilateral attraction contributed largely to declaring sexual harassment a serious issue (Baker 2008: 94; Boris and Elias 2017: 203). As Katherine MacKinnon, who would later represent Mechelle Vinson in Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank, the first Supreme Court case on sexual harassment, put it in her ground breaking legal analysis on sexual harassment in 1979, “economic power is to sexual harassment as physical force is to rape” (1979: 217f). Lastly, feminists drew attention to the extensive consequences suffered by women both on an individual and a collective level. These extended far into the victims’ lives, influencing their health, reputation, finances, and career advancement. Affected women often found themselves in what Lin Farley, co-founder of WWU, describes in her book Sexual Shakedown as, a “submit-or-quit dynamic” (Farley 1978: 22). Feminists identified sexual harassment as an instrument used by the men in their lives as well as society at large to preserve male control over the labor market. Women quitting their jobs, losing promotions, earning lower wages, and being continuously sexualized were all results of sexual harassment and had significant consequences for those targeted by this behavior. Within this frame, sexual harassment was charged with perpetuating gendered job segregation as well as the notion that women had no place in the public sphere (Farley 1978: 23).

In opposition to these new feminist ideals stood a social conservative pro-family movement. Many of the ideas this movement represented were considered the status quo for much of the 19th  and 20th century and are still implicitly and explicitly part of how many 21st century Americans think about gender relations (Berebitsky 2012: 281, 295). In the face of changing social mores and growing fears of the “decay of morality” in America, the social conservative pro-family movement grew strong in the late 1970s (Klatch 1987: 5, 133). Topics of engagement were anti-abortion and anti-Equal Rights Amendment campaign, advocating for school prayer, and the preservation of traditional family structures (Schreiber 2017: 318). In 1981, the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources invited Phillis Schlafly, the founder and president of the social conservative organization Eagle Forum and one of the most prominent social conservative activists, to give her opinion on what the government could do to decrease sex discrimination in the workplace. Phillis Schlafly’s testimony is a prime example for social conservative viewpoints on sexual harassment. Schlafly directly disputes the feminist frame’s claim that sexual harassment is a political problem. She explains the high numbers cited in various surveys by a magnitude of false accusations and incidents in which the behavior was incited by female conduct:

Non-criminal sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman except in the rarest of cases. When a woman walks across the room, she speaks with a universal body language that most men intuitively understand. Men hardly ever seek sexual favors of women from whom the certain answer is ‘no’

(Committee on Labor 1981: 400)

Sexual harassment, in Schlafly’s view, was a matter of female behavior, easily remedied by a change in female conduct and dress. By proposing this easy solution, Schlafly denied that the phenomenon had any far-reaching consequences for the woman in question. Additionally, according to Schlafly, by diverging from the established system, the “irrational feminist demands for the elimination of ‘sex discrimination’” and the “many more women in the workplace” had provoked the increase of sexual behavior at work (Committee on Labor 1981: 401, 409). In short, Schlafly did not make men who engaged in harassing behavior responsible, but instead blamed the new practice of allowing a close working relationship between men and women. In the eyes of social conservatives like Schlafly, sexual harassment was not recognized as a wide-spread or serious problem and therefore warranted no societal and, much less, legal action.

Despite efforts by conservatives to dismiss sexual harassment as a minor issue, there was legal action. Employers in the late 70’s and 80’s became aware of an increase in court rulings in favor of plaintiffs and feared high financial losses in the form of compensatory damages. Many attempted to shield themselves from liability (Dobbin 2009: 203). Companies began to act, and sexual harassment was again reframed. Despite the clear opposition the social conservative frame presented to feminist political efforts, it is the development of this management frame of sexual harassment that I tie to the need for “silence breakers” in 2017.

Most often, a corporation’s primary motivation to address sexual harassment was and is not political or ideological but rooted in a pragmatic economic desire to avoid financial losses for the organization (e.g. Dobbin 2009: 201f). The management frame presents inappropriate conduct as something that happens between two individuals. In many organizations’ pamphlets and workshops, individuals having been targeted by sexually harassing behavior are encouraged to seek a conversation with the harasser (Meyer 1981: 46). The underlying assumption, which is at times made explicit in the informational material, is that the harassing behavior was actually a misunderstanding. Sexual harassment is then mostly represented as flirting gone wrong or attributed to “every individual [having] different levels of comfort” rather than an instrument of power and a misuse of authority. It is by no means a problem helped by the structures of the company or society at large (Meyer et al,1981: 64). It is also not represented as a gendered issue. Although numerous surveys from the 1980s onwards show that only a fraction of men consider themselves to have been sexually harassed, fictional examples provided in workshop material, books, and pamphlets depict women harassing men as often as vice versa (e.g., Mathis 1981: 33-35; Meyer et al, 1981).

In the 1970s, feminists were considered the authority on sexual harassment, often called upon as expert witnesses in courts and advisors on corporate and government policy. However, the official recognition of sexual harassment by courts, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and many employers led management consultants and lawyers to specialize in the issue (Dobbin 2009: 191). By the mid-1980s, very few companies were getting their advice from feminist activists, and internal policies and procedure increasingly followed the management frame. Part of the strategy to prevent sexual harassment, and liability in court, was to educate all employees on the respective company’s policy. Hence, many Americans engaged with the topic on a deeper level for the first time with information provided by their place of work (Lublin 1981: 1; Zipple 2006: 49, 161f). This gave employers enormous influence on the public perception and discourse surrounding sexual harassment. However, due to the change being gradual and seemingly not ideological, it went largely unnoticed in political discussions which remained polarized along the cleavage of feminism and social conservatism.

The management frame was significantly bolstered when, in 1998, in Fragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, the Supreme Court gave private organizations more control over settling the majority of hostile-environment sexual harassment cases, before they went to court. In these cases, which make up the majority of sexual harassment cases, victims are required to use their employers’ internal grievance procedure before filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the courts. This is a precedent which stands until today. These rulings finally settled the now two decade old question: Could a claim of having had no knowledge of ongoing harassment within their respective organizations protect employers from liability in court. In Fragher and in Ellerth the Supreme Court now came down on the side of the employer, deciding that if a plaintiff did not make their grievances known through the official channels of their place of work, they, with some few exceptions, would have no case (Chamallas 2004: 325). This decision did much to aid employers in keeping sexual harassment allegations in-house. For this purpose, companies employed several strategies:  First, the use of zero-tolerance polices forbade any kind of sexual intimacy between employees and thereby blurred the line between consent and coercion. Forbidding behavior such as a consensual hug or flirtation has, on the one hand, stoked wariness and outright hostility toward anti-sexual harassment measures in general and, on the other hand, has diluted the meaning of sexual harassment so that allegations of sexual coercion carry less weight (Schultz 2003: 210f). Second, mandatory binding arbitration was increasingly made a condition of employment, eliminating an employee’s right to sue their place of work (Coleman 2019). Thirdly, non-disclosure agreements became a standard part of settlement agreements. These agreements, while relieving some of the financial burdens of an individual victim in an individual case, perpetuate the problem on a structural level. Perpetrators are often privately reprimanded and remain in positions in which they can continue their behavior, while those victimized by their behavior remain silent (Prasad 2018: 2510).

And so, in 2017, we again celebrated “the silence breakers.”

Whether or not those active in the #MeToo movement explicitly placed themselves in the tradition of 1970s feminism, they are reclaiming the feminist narrative in regard to sexual harassment. The movement’s activists have been calling attention to the power dynamics within and structural nature of their personal experiences (Langone 2018). They have been publicly sharing their stories, engaging in large scale consciousness raising, and thereby exposing the magnitude of the problem (North 2018). As a consequence of the movement, several changes have taken place. In 2018, there was a marked increase in sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC. Additionally, #MeToo has influenced state laws around the country. In 2018, California, New York, and New Jersey banned non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual assault, harassment, or sex discrimination. In 2020, Texas was the most recent state to enhance employee protections in the workplace, lengthening the statute of limitation on sexual harassment claims, and extending employer liability to smaller companies formerly not covered by the federal Civil Rights Act (North 2019, Ravitsky 2021). In the years after #MeToo, feminist organizations are again being heard, financially supported, and considered experts on the issue of sexual harassment by many politicians, media outlets, and even some employers seeking advice on their internal policies. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, for instance, founded in 2018 to help victims of sexual harassment, was the most successful go-fund-me campaign to date raising $20 million in the first month alone (Langone 2018). The #MeToo movement has pushed the issue of sexual harassment back to the forefront of the public discourse. Much of this new activism is happening online on social media (Vogelstein and Stone 2021: 2229). Armed with laptops and pink pussy hats, the #MeToo movement has reclaimed the feminist narrative on sexual harassment. The question now is, how long will the issue stay in the public eye, and will true change be achieved? The hope is that we do not need another group of silence breakers in the future.


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Header by Mihai Surdu on unsplash.

 Anita Hill testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, by R. Michael Jenkins, Oct 11, 1991. Roll Call portion of CQ Roll Call Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

About the Author

Nicole Colaianni is a Ph.D. candidate in the graduate program Authority and Trust (GKAT) at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA). Her research focuses on the conceptualization and varying understandings of sexual harassment and pays special attention to the private sector’s handling of the issue.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
The Editors (December 15, 2021). Breaking the Silence – #MeToo and the Reclaiming of the Feminist Framing of Sexual Harassment. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved July 12, 2024 from

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1 Response

  1. Dr. Dorothea Fischer-Hornung says:

    Thank you for this very insightful contribution.
    As a US college student in the late 1960s, I experienced sexual harassment every evening when I took over an evening shift in the university library. At the time, there wasn’t a name for what I felt very threatened and intimidated by. The term, as you point out, came into use in the 1970s. Being able to name the experience enabled our ability to do something about it. It is amazing that 50 years later we still have to fight to “break the silence.”

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