KAI WRIGHT: Hey, everybody. So, one great pleasure of summer is you can unplug... Right? I mean like, step away from computers and smartphones and engage the natural world. Unless, well, you can’t. ‘Cause, it’s hard to do. I mean, that phone...with the games and texts and shares and likes...it’s hard to put down. And that’s not a coincidence, it’s by design…and that’s what we’re gonna be talking about a lot this summer on The Stakes: How Silicon Valley got us all hooked.
Which is why I’ve been asking for your stories about your own compulsive phone use. We’re getting some great ones. But we need more! So send them to me at TheStakes@wnyc.org because we are just about to launch our summer series. Hit me up.
I’m Kai Wright, and these are The Stakes. In this episode: Victory has a thousand mothers.
[music up: “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton]
One of my favorite things ever is the movie “9-to-5”...
LYRICS: Tumble out of bed and I stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition and yawn and stretch and try to come to life...
KAI: And if you haven’t seen it - it’s basically a slapstick buddy comedy for Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin and, of course, Dolly Parton. They’re office workers in the late 70s, and they’re dealing with this sexist pig of a boss. And the big iconic scene in this movie comes when one day Lily Tomlin gets passed over for a promotion … it goes to just some guy… after she’s spent all this time making the boss look good, letting him take credit for her work and stuff. And she can’t take it anymore and she starts going off on him
LILY TOMLIN: Ok, Ok. I’m gonna leave. But I’m gonna tell you one thing before I go. Don’t you ever refer to me as your girl again…
DABNEY COLEMAN: What in God’s name are you talking about?
KAI: But as she’s going in on him, Dolly Parton walks in -- and it comes out that the boss has been telling everybody that Dolly is his mistress.
DOLLY PARTON: What do you mean, mistress?!
COLEMAN: Nevermind, she’s just a little upset.
TOMLIN: Dora Lee, just come off it for god’s sake the whole company knows you two have been having an affair…
KAI: This guy’s been literally chasing her around the office and she’s been politely dodging him. But now she also unloads on him.
PARTON: If you ever say another word about me or make another indecent proposal, I’m gonna get that gun of mine, and I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot!
KAI: I love this scene. It is so good… But here’s the thing: I never really thought about the historical context for this movie -- and for this scene in particular.
[New Jersey Nightly News clip]
NEWSCASTER: In the fantasy world of motion pictures, 1980 turned out to be the year when real life themes spelled box office success. Perhaps the best example is a film ‘9 TO 5,’ a picture dealing with the problems of working women...
KAI: But here’s the thing: this moment at the end of the 70’s, there is really just a before and after for the American workplace. I mean, women in jobs all around the economy were just having the same sort of collective awakening that’s depicted in 9 to 5.
[Waterfall of clips]
PROTESTERS: Hey hey, what do ya say, ratify the ERA…
SPEAKER: I have a great deal of rage about a great deal of what men have done to women…
PROTESTER: We demand that the magazine cease to exploit women in terms of salary..
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I don’t think anyone on this panel can say that she had thought deeply about women’s oppression...
KAI: And in a really short period -- just a few years at the end of the decade -- a group of women in upstate New York forced into the mainstream a new idea. And in this episode, I’m gonna tell the story of that idea and its inception, because that story offers a sort of playbook for social change—with examples for what works, and what doesn’t.
LINDA HIRSCHMAN: Are you there?
KAI: Hey Linda this is Kai.
LINDA: Hi Kai! Nice to meet you.
KAI: Nice to meet you too. Thanks so much for coming in and hanging out with us.
LINDA: Oh yes, I love to talk about this. This is the subject of my life's work.
KAI: Linda Hirschman studies social movements -- and particularly the legal fight for women’s equality. Her latest book is called Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment. And right away, she gives me a big caveat here: You cannot boil a social movement down to a few people.
LINDA: Victory has a thousand mothers.
KAI: Victory has a thousand mothers. And I totally hear that. Moreover, victory takes a long time because we have not defeated sexual harassment yet. But still, it’s useful in this story to focus on a few particular mothers.
KAI: So let's start with Carmita Wood. Who was she and what was her job?
LINDA: Carmita Wood was a lab worker at the physics department at Cornell University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and she was promoted to be the chief administrative assistant to the physics lab, which was run at that point by a physics professor named Boyce McDaniel.
KAI: He was a big deal. He worked on the Manhattan Project and was a famous, powerful professor on campus.
LINDA: and he had been pestering her for a while -- but she was able to avoid him until she got this promotion. Here's what's interesting about her: She had four children, and when she got promoted she was able to get a nice house for them for the first time. The additional salary allowed this single mother to finally house her family. But it exposed her to this physics professor. And he would follow her around, and he would make sexual comments to her, and he would pin her against the wall or pin her against a desk and he would put his hands in his pockets and simulate masturbation when he was -- had her within range. And finally, at the Christmas party he pulled her onto the dance floor and put his hands underneath her sweater. And at that point she quit.
KAI: She had tried to manage it, but the guy just wore her down... She asked for a transfer, and the university denied it. So she walked away. And she applied for unemployment insurance.
LINDA: At the hearing, the hearing officer said that it was just a matter of personal taste that she didn't like it when her boss pushed her up against a desk and simulated masturbation at her. And since she had made the personal decision to quit, it was voluntary, and she wasn't going to get unemployment compensation.
SUSAN MEYER: They didn't even read the appeal! I remember thinking, ‘They couldn't have read this!’ They just said, this is not a cause for collecting unemployment, which was the case across the country at that point.
KAI: Susan Meyer had just started working at Cornell. The university had just created a program for women’s issues, and Susan -- along with her partner, Karen Sauvigne, and an instructor named Lynn Farley -- were interested in the workplace generally.
SUSAN: This is a lot of years ago.
KAI: She remembers when Carmita came to them, to get help fighting the unemployment decision.
SUSAN: I believe we were actually in a room when Carmita was explaining to Lynn’s students and to us what had happened. She was sick. The stress was getting to her: stomach problems, sleeplessness. You know, if you hate going to work because you're afraid what you’ll find, you can imagine what that would be like every morning.
KAI: Susan could certainly imagine it... Carmita’s story struck a nerve: Every woman who heard it, immediately recognized it.
SUSAN: The depth of the humiliation and the hurt. You know, this is sort of interesting, my own personal story. It was my landlord. I lived in a small building and I thought we were friends. We used to talk about all sorts of things. And it turned out he wanted to get into my pants. That was what this was about.
SUSAN: No! I was really hurt. Crushed. I felt deceived. I'm sure everyone can sort of relate to that kind of thing, where you feel like you're being played. Played with. That people think they can play with you, because they have dominance.
KAI: Susan and Lynn and Karen and all of them knew right away that this was new work. Carmita had cracked something open.
SUSAN: The ERA, abortion, rape, you know, issues -- women were organizing all over the place. But in some ways abortion and rape are more visible issues. This was sort of background noise. You know, the background hum that you get used to and you don't notice anymore? That was the status of sexual harassment. Between 1960 and 1980 women's participation in the workforce went from 38 percent to 51 percent. A huge jump. Men were threatened. They were women coming into the old boys club. They needed to assert their dominance, and make sure that women knew their place. And this was one of the ways to do that.
SUSAN: After meeting Carmita, Susan’s group decided it had to confront the shame that was helping this stuff hide in plain sight. And this was 1975, so they took a very 1975 approach.
SUSAN: Well, we did a speak out. So. Ok. It was sort of like consciousness raising, but sort of in a town hall way.
KAI: Meaning everybody just stands in public and testifies... Says the thing out loud, so others know it’s NOT just a personal experience.
[Sound of applause]
SPEAKER: I used to feel so a part of that company. “My company” this, “my company that.” Well it’s THE company and it’s HIS company and it’s THEIR company, it’s not mine.
KAI: Events like this begin to spread all over the country.
[Waterfall of clips]
SPEAKER: … and the guy came and went [knock, knock, knock, knock, knock] "You didn't smile when I came out of the elevator."
SPEAKER: Instead of trying to shrug off all the indignities and injustices I think we really had to do it for survival...
SPEAKER: The office manager proposed bolting the typewriters to the tables to prevent thefts and one of the lawyers said they should bolt the secretaries to the typewriters.
KAI: I mean, ironically, the biggest challenge was that it was in fact such a common thing. It was just, it was too normal -- they didn’t even have words for talking about it as a problem. Like literally. The phrase “sexual harassment”? It did not exist.
SUSAN: the phenomenon existed, right. But it didn't have a name. So it was invisible; it's like the air we breathe. Right. It's what's considered natural. It's your environment.
KAI: So first they had to come up with a name for this thing.
SUSAN: Ok, so there were actually either five to eight women in a room. And so -- Karen and I sort of disagree about it; I thought there was five, she thought there was eight.
SUSAN: It doesn't matter. But the group of us, right, the three of us had expanded. Obviously. We had a larger group of women who we were talking to, who were involved, and had been affected by this. And we knew that we couldn't go into a speak out without being very clear what we were doing. And so we threw a lot of things around, all of which I don't remember. But we came up with sexual harassment because it was the most inclusive.
KAI: And they formally defined it -- put it down on paper.
SUSAN: The definition: “Any repeated and unwanted or unwelcome sexual comments, looks, suggestions, or physical contact that you find objectionable or offensive and causes you discomfort on your job.” And by labelling it -- there's great power in naming and labelling a phenomena. Without it, you don't see it. From the silence, you suddenly have a voice. You have something to hold on to. And it was a very powerful moment. We knew that.
LINDA: In social movements -- this is true in all the social movements that I have studied, which are many...
KAI: Linda Hirschman again.
KAI: there is a moment when someone names it. And until you can name it, you're sort of politically powerless
KAI: This was the spring of 1975. And by late summer, word spread way past Cornell’s campus. Lynn Farley testified about it down at the human rights commission in New York City. And a New York Times reporter heard her testimony, came up to Cornell, and then published a story with a full-page headline. It said: “Women Begin to Speak Out Against Sexual Harassment at Work.”
LINDA: So in 1975 it was, shall we say, a matter of record.
KAI: Susan and Lynn Farley and Karen Sauvigne became essentially political celebrities over the next few years. Through Carmita, they had created kind of a pre-social media #MeToo moment. And they knew they’d really broken through, when they landed on the Phil Donahue Show.
[Donahue’s late 70s theme music]
SUSAN: The Donahue Show, he was sort of like the Oprah, the male Oprah of his time.
KAI: And it’s quite an exchange, because first Donohue is kinda setting Susan and Karen up...
Donahue: ...But you’re specially keying in on the issue of sexual harassment at the office. Which you say is pervasive, which you say uh, many women take it as a matter of course don’t they….[fade under]
KAI: And they’re just delivering their big ideas…
KAREN SAUVIGNE: We’ve been trained all our lives to be pleasing, to let men’s egos off the hook gently...
KAI: But then, you know, once he brings in the audience, it gets pretty jarring to the modern ear -- because you can hear a lot of people just aren’t buying it. And there’s a ton of blaming women.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE 1: And then also there’s a lot of women that enjoy it too [applause]
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE 2: I think a lot of women are asking for it, by the way they dress or maybe flirting…
KAI: But Phil Donahue is clearly on Susan and Karen’s side, and they just keep making the case that this is an epidemic.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How many real lechers are there?
DONAHUE: 1,700. I have no idea. [Big laughs]
KAREN: Our studies have shown that -- women who have responded to questionnaires, between - what is it - 70 and 90 percent of all women who work experience sexual harassment at some point in their lives.
SUSAN: And it’s not one man who’s running around doing all of this. It’s a lot of different men! [Gets laughs]
KAI: After this show, their celebrity skyrocketed; Susan said they had people asking for their autographs. And they knew they’d done something big: They’d taken this thing that women experienced in isolation, and shrouded in shame, and they’d given it a name and turned it into a household conversation.
SUSAN: I can't describe the excitement of those years. // This burgeoning of consciousness, and the unifying of people around issues to make change.
KAI: Which was great--as far as it went... because you know, one thing didn’t change.
LINDA: They could not help Carmita Wood. The unemployment people in New York were adamant. She disappears from view. It's very common that the early victims just, they just break the ice. They don't get to drink the water.
KAI: Carmita died in 2015. … and he professor who tormented her was celebrated right up into his death. But remember, victory has a thousand mothers. Carmita helped name the problem. The next step was to change the rules.
LINDA: In 1972 a woman named Paulette Barnes had been approached by her boss and said that she had to sleep with him or she couldn't have her job. She refused, he fired her.
KAI: And she sued. She worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, and she sued the government.
Now this was a huge moment, because it was the first time somebody walked into court and said, you know what, this guy who’s harassing me? He is actually violating my constitutionally protected civil rights.
LINDA: She was an African-American woman. Almost all of the critical plaintiffs in the first 10 or 15 years of the formulation of the sexual harassment legal claim were African-American women. In the best sense of intersectionality, I think that being both African-American and a woman did in fact play a role in the way that these very brave women saw that they had to fight the system.
KAI: Paulette’s suit made its way up through the courts, and in late 1975 -- just months after the women at Cornell had given this problem a name -- the case landed in the federal appeals court of Washington, DC. Which was lucky. Because one of the judges on that panel was a black man named Spottswood Robinson.
FAITH HOCHBERG: You're bringing me back like 40 years!
KAI: Robinson is dead, but Faith Hochberg was one of his clerks
FAITH: I mean Judge Robinson was unusual because he had two female clerks. We were his only two clerks. He was an amazing man. If you don't know much about him, you ought to research him because he is one of the not sufficiently heralded figures of the civil rights movement.
KAI: Robinson had been a key part of the NAACP legal team that took apart this whole idea of separate but equal; he worked alongside his more famous companion, Thurgood Marshall. And that experience shaped him.
FAITH: He was fanatically accurate, often to the point where his opinions didn't come out so fast. And when I spoke to him about it, he said it arose from his early legal work, where when they were fighting these desegregation cases and other civil rights cases in the South, if they didn't have every single “I” dotted perfectly, they'd get thrown out of court. So he became the perfectionist.
KAI: And he brought that to Paulette Barnes’s suit, which forced the court to answer exactly the question Carmita had raised: Was her experience just a personal matter, or a shared offense that created inequality for all women?
FAITH: It was argued December 17th, 1975. So I would have been 5 or 6 months into my clerkship.
KAI: The lower court had rejected the suit outright. It never even made it to trial, because they said Paulette Barnes didn’t have a legitimate lawsuit -- the Civil Rights Act didn’t cover this kind of thing.
FAITH: when you read it now, you can't imagine why it wouldn't have been a cause of action. How could you throw out a case where a woman's position was eliminated because she wouldn't sleep with her boss?
LINDA: because the boss didn't ask ALL of his women employees to sleep with him. He only asked -- as far as we know -- Paulette Barnes to sleep with him. So it was not like, ‘No girls allowed.’
KAI: It wasn’t about literal equal treatment of men and women, because she wasn’t fired for being a woman.
LINDA: it was not just the fact that she was a woman, but the fact that she was a woman who was attractive to her boss. But Robinson said we've already seen this in the racial cases. And as long as sex or race plays any significant role in the in the behavior it's enough otherwise you'd almost never be able to win, right? People would say, “I'm not a sexist, I just don't want to employ women who have high voices.”
KAI: Now, you gotta remember, up until this point, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal activism for explicit equality between men and women -- that had been the big idea of feminist politics. But legal scholar Catherine McKinnon — whose father by the way was one of the judges on Paulette Barnes case — she had begun articulating this same point that Robinson would make in his ruling: the idea that the law had to recognize systems of subjugation, not just simple equality.
And Robinson saw that. He’d already fought to make the same shift in racial civil rights--to focus courts not just on equality between black and white schools, but on the overall pattern of subjugation that segregation represented. He applied that logic to gender equality.
And Paulette Barnes won. The court agreed unanimously with Judge Robinson that she had a legitimate complaint. So the government settled, and Robinson’s logic stood as case law. For the first time, sexual harassment was grounds for complaint under the Civil Rights Act.
But sexual harassment…. well, it didn’t stop.
[Waterfall of news clips]
NEWSCASTER: … this morning with the announcement that long time anchor Matt Lauer had been fired following a complaint about inappropriate sexual behavior at work...
NEWSCASTER: Less than a day after harassment allegations surfaced against charlie Rose he has lost all of his jobs…
NEWSCASTER: Five women have now accused the Comedian and TV star Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct...
KAI: So why? There was a culture change, there was a legal change--and yet. Why are we still so far down this dark alley in 2019? Susan Meyer has a thought. That’s after the break.
KAI: I asked Susan Meyer -- who was there at the beginning, with Carmita Wood, literally naming the problem of sexual harassment -- I asked her what to make of the 40 years that came next.
KAI: What do I...how do I...It's 2019.
KAI: We're talking about events that took place in 1974 and 75, How do we deal with the thought that all of this amazing work went on. The law changed, the culture changed, it got named...
SUSAN: Well the culture didn't -- the thing is, there were some movies, there were some things, I don't think the culture ever really changed.
KAI: Do you remember “9 to 5” coming out?
SUSAN: I do! I do!
KAI: What’d you think of “9 to 5” when it came out?
SUSAN: OK so you want me to be honest with this?
KAI: I do.
SUSAN: OK. I love these three women. Great. They were - right? It was funny. It should have ended on them unionizing.
SUSAN: No seriously. The thing that we always had to say to people, to women: you can't deal with this yourself. You not only have to tell your family and friends, you have to talk to colleagues. Because if you're being sexually harassed, you're damn sure that other women have experienced the same thing. And you need to unify.
KAI: I think what Susan’s actually talking about is a meaningful shift in power. And that kind of thing takes a long time -- because nobody just gives up power.
So if our playbook for change from this history included a step for naming the problem and one for changing the rules, it also needs one that’s something like, dig in -- cause it’s gonna be a long fight. And there’s a really big final step, too.
SUSAN: You need consequences. If not, the men stay in the job, the women leave, and the culture goes on. So I think, we did the defining. We made it visible. We gave women a voice. We gave them some tools. We gave them some legislation and policy and legal backup. But you always need consequences. And until recently the consequences were not widely known.
The Stakes is a production of WNYC Studios and the newsroom of WNYC.
This episode was reported and produced by Jessica Miller, and written by me.
It was edited by Karen Frillmann who is also our Executive Producer.
Cayce Means is our technical director.
Jim Schachter is Vice President for news at WNYC.
The Stakes team also includes…
Amanda Aronczyk, Jonna McKone, Kaari Pitkin, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams…
With help from…
Hannis Brown, Cheyann Harris, Michelle Harris, and Rosie Misdary.
Thanks to Andy Lanset and the Pacifica Archives for the historical tape in this episode.
And don’t forget: Send me your stories of times when you really, inappropriately, were not able to put down your phone. Send them to TheStakes@WNYC.org. And stay tuned for our special series, coming up next.
I’m Kai Wright. Thanks for listening.