by Anne-Marie Langan
I recently discovered that the MeToo Movement was pioneered by American women of colour well over a decade before we began hearing about the #MeToo movement on the news.
Tarana Burke, a survivor of multiple incidents of sexual harassment and assault, wanted to support other black women who had similar experiences to share their stories. She started support groups for women of colour that were actually called “Me Too” groups. Ms. Burke also pioneered Just Be Inc. in 2006, an organization that seeks to empower young women of colour to “take root, grow, and blossom”, thereby lessening the chances that they will be targeted by sexual predators.
One of the first activists to advocate against sexual harassment in the workplace (SHIW) as early as 1975 was Carmita Wood, a black woman who worked at Cornell University. She quit her job when she was refused a transfer after complaining about having been repeatedly sexually harassed and assaulted by her boss. She was denied employment benefits because she was deemed to have quit for “personal reasons”. She went on to help found Working Women United, a group that successfully advocated for an anti-sexual harassment clause to be included in the affirmative action amendments that lead to the US’s Employment Opportunity Commission.
In addition, one of the US Supreme Court’s seminal cases about sexual harassment in the workplace, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), was brought by a black bank teller who had been repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by the bank manager, along with several of her co-workers. In this case, the court set out guidelines for determining whether certain behaviours constitute sexual harassment, and recognized that SHIW can create a “hostile work environment” and is an infringement of an employee’s civil rights. The principles outlined by the US Supreme Court in this case closely mirror those applied by our provincial and federal human rights tribunals and the Canadian courts.
These courageous women, who were facing many obstacles other than the SHIW they experienced, including economic barriers, racism, and other forms of sexism, deserve our gratitude for taking leadership on this issue and creating the ground work for the complaint mechanisms that we have in place today.
This article was provided by The Legal Clinic as part of a public legal education campaign sponsored by The Justice Department of the Government of Canada. As part of this project, The Legal Clinic is offering free workshops about SHIW for employers, employees, and students, and free legal advice and assistance to victims of SHIW. For more information about this project, please visit our website at www.tlcshiwproject.com, or contact the project coordinator, Anne-Marie Langan at [email protected], or 613-264-7153.