How the Reagan Administration Decided That Sexual Harassment Was No Longer Sexual Discrimination
A lesson in bureaucracy, conservatism, and how to eliminate pesky feminist issues
Last week I posted an account of how Ronald Reagan, a president not famous for his commitments to anti-racism, turned out to be the president who made Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday. While today’s post does not dig deeply into the Reagan administration’s record on gender, it does take us back to the 1980s to explore why a report commissioned in the Carter administration led to action against sexual harassment under Reagan. Read on! And if you know a history buff or a feminist who might be interested, please:
A new era of conservatives navigating women and sexuality without feminism did begin when Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in January 1981. Although President Jimmy Carter's relationship with organized feminism was fraught (to put it mildly: would anyone other than Jimmy Carter have fired Bella Abzug?), his was the first administration to tackle questions like institutional sexism directly.
In addition to halting these initiatives, Ronald Reagan came into office with another set of problems. Primary among them was the Equal Rights Amendment, which had not been ratified by a sufficient number of states, thanks to Reagan ally Phyllis Schlafly. Reagan would have had the option to extend the window for ratification but made it clear he would not do so.
A second issue was Reagan’s open pro-life stance. Feminists had already seen abortion services for women on welfare and Medicaid shrink dramatically under the Carter administration. Now, conservatives believed—and liberals feared—that the federal government would limit legal abortion as much as was constitutionally possible.
Although the Reagan White House did have the distinction of appointing the first woman Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor of Arizona, and continued to reach out generically to “women” for the next eight years, they had to do so without engaging feminism.
There is no better example of how the Reagan White House converted feminist issues into ungendered policy issues than how it dealt with one Carter administration legacy: the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which mandated continued federal monitoring of gender discrimination and a newly defined problem, sexual harassment. Worse, a report commissioned in 1978, delivered in March 1981, asserted that sexual harassment was endemic in the federal workplace.
“Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace: Is It a Problem? A Report of the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board Office of Merit Systems Review and Studies” was written by Patricia Mathis and Ruth Prokop and based on a survey of 20,000 federal workers. These workers must have been waiting for someone to ask them: the survey had an astonishing return rate of 85%, “which far exceeded the minimum standards for reliability,” Mathis noted.
“Sexual harassment as an important concern in the workplace,” Mathis and Prokop announced, and probably an endemic feature of American employment. “Although we know of no comparable research in the private sector, our findings in the Federal study – that people of all ages, salary levels, education backgrounds, and hometowns are potential victims,” the authors wrote, “leads us to the observation that sexual harassment cannot be uniquely associated with Federal employment.” The government needed to act to “encourage private sector leaders to pursue a comparable course of self-analysis as the first step in eliminating this form of sex discrimination.”
The 1981 report is a fascinating window on what sexual harassment looked like as the concept was defined, not in the law, but in the experiences of workers themselves. While sometimes perpetrated through acts of violence, unwanted touching, and propositions, sexual harassment most frequently occurred through unwanted speech: relating sexual fantasies and forcing a worker to look at pornography. It’s worth noting that in 1981, attorney Anita Hill had just gone to work for Reagan-appointee Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission where, she later alleged, Thomas pestered her relentlessly in precisely these ways.
One woman who responded to the survey confessed that her supervisor not only persisted in touching her intimately but also made “obscene suggestions about what I should do with him, suggesting I go away for long weekends with him and his buddies so they can show me a really ‘good’ time.”
Another respondent wrote that her supervisor kept her in a perpetual state of embarrassment “with his constant twisting of every word I say into some sexual connotation.” Yet a third “complain[ed], ‘I resent being asked into someone’s ‘private office’ to confer on legitimate business and then being confronted with walls papered with nudes.’” She continued: “No government office is so ‘private’ that such a display can be justified.”
Although the survey included both genders, and men reported graphic incidents of sexual harassment too, the researchers identified openly displayed pornography as a particular problem for “many women.” For example, one respondent “dislike[ed] the way her male coworkers pass around and put up pornographic cartoons in workspaces,” Mathis and Prokop observed. “When she objects, her boss tells her she is too sensitive.”
This kind of behavior was common. As Mathis and Prokop wrote, “suggestive body movements,” “obscene gestures,” and sexual remarks made women the ongoing object of male derision, often as higher-ranked officials looked on. One woman wrote that her “supervisor thinks it’s funny and does nothing about it.” A female secretary complained about her supervisor’s habit of implying to his “buddies” that she slept with him. In addition, he had a habit of touching her possessively, as if they had a sexual relationship, and then offering “to share her ‘services’ with his buddies, in a time and manner that make clear it is not clerical services he is talking about.”
The Reagan administration did nothing to alleviate these conditions. But feminist activism that resulted in numerous EEOC and Supreme Court rulings during the 1980s did. It raised awareness of sexual harassment and clarified, to those who were harassed, what was happening to them. For example, when the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board circulated virtually the same survey in 1987, results showed that even though the percentage of federal employees affected by harassment remained constant, workers were “now more inclined to define certain types of behavior as sexual harassment.” And although victims rarely filed complaints, “the great majority of federal workers,” both harassers and victims, were “aware that formal remedies are available to them.”
Yet it is worth noting that, although awareness “that sexual harassment is contrary to federal policy” was nearly universal, “the overall bottom line did not change.” Sexual harassment remained stable and was “still a pervasive, costly, and systemic problem within the Federal workplace.”
In other words, while sexual harassment still existed, it was no longer a problem of sex discrimination but one of several “issues affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal workforce.”
The keyword here is costly: the reason the government should care about sexual harassment, the report argued, was that it hindered workplace efficiency and productivity. And in June 1988, Chairman of the Chairman of the United States Merit Systems Protection Board Daniel Levinson produced a second report showing that while “sexual harassment remains a widespread problem in the federal workplace,” to the Reagan administration, it was no longer a feminist issue because bureaucrats had learned to speak about the problem differently.
At The New Republic, Michael Tomasky lays out the case for impeaching Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas. Thomas was the lone dissent in a recent case that denied executive privilege to the Former Guy, thus releasing a trove of materials about White House activities and communications on J6 to the House Special Subcommittee investigating the Trump-inspired attack on the 2020 election. Ginni Thomas, the Associate Justice’s wife, helped bring protesters to the Capitol on that day. “It’s just the most recent example where she has been involved in activities that directly or indirectly place her activism before the court,” Tomasky writes, “and her husband does not care how corrupt it looks.” (January 24, 2022)
Liz Cheney is in deep trouble in her Wyoming primary: one poll has her down 20 points to the Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman. Tal Axelrod writes at The Hill that as the J6 Special Committee gets closer to Trump (last week, subpoenas went out to the Trump brood and at least one spouse, Kimberly Guilfoyle), it heightens the precariousness of Cheyney’s position by keeping her in the news and inflaming Wyoming MAGAs further. “Besides accusations that there are political considerations behind the committee’s work,” Axelrod writes, “Cheney’s critics also say the panel distracts Wyoming’s sole House member from energy policies — issues that are key to the state’s economy.” This criticism is, of course, ironic, given that Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Goetz, and Madison Cawthorne do nothing. (January 24, 2022)
What would a Republican Senate primary in Alabama look like without a pedophilia scandal? Enquiring minds want to know. “Black Hawk Down” helicopter pilot Mike Durant, now a businessman, is running in the Senate primary in Alabama and is endorsed by Donald J. Trump. Durant has also consistently spoken well of his father. Why does that matter? That same father sexually assaulted his sister for 15 years. That woman—Mary Durant Ryan--is telling her story, asserting that her brother and the rest of her family turned on her when she told them about their father’s crimes. We know Dad did this because he confessed and went into psychological treatment. So why did the Durant family ostracize Mary Ryan? According to Josh Moon of The Alabama Political Reporter, candidate Durant’s version of the story is that “Ryan and her former husband threatened to make public Leon Durant’s sexual abuse during the time Durant was in captivity in Somalia.” Ryan says that isn’t how she remembers it. (January 22, 2022)
You are invited:
And you can register here:
Excellent summary during times when it was not safe to be a woman while working. I was living in Detroit then, early 1970s, and had taken on the project of developing women's studies at the community college, something very new in the city. I connected with NOW feminists and talked with the formidable left women who were creating their own radical projects....challenging dialectics, arguments, good times.