Vol. 20 No. 3 (March, 2010) pp.96-99


THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT, by Carrie N. Baker. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 286pp. Hardcover.  $83.99/£47.00.  ISBN: 9780521879354.  Paper. $25.99/£17.99.  ISBN: 9780521704946. 


Reviewed by Lori A. Johnson, Department of Political Science, Mercer University. Email: Johnson_la [at] mercer.edu.


Catherine MacKinnon has described the development of sexual harassment law as “legally led social change” through which “anti-sexual harassment law impelled social awareness of those issues rather than the reverse.” Though not necessarily intended as such, Carrie N. Baker’s book, THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT, offers a carefully researched and well-written empirical test of MacKinnon’s assertion. Specifically, Baker uses social movement theory to explore how women from varying racial, economic, educational, and geographic backgrounds used diverse resources and strategies to shape public policies against sexual harassment.


THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT is an important contribution to the scholarly literature on sexual harassment. It belongs in the same category of original and creative explorations of this topic like Kathrin Zippel’s THE POLITICS OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT: A COMPARATIVE STUDY OF THE UNITED STATES, THE EUROPEAN UNION AND GERMANY; Theresa Beiner’s GENDER MYTHS v. WORKING REALITIES: USING SOCIAL SCIENCE TO REFORMULATE SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAW; Anna-Maria Marshall’s CONFRONTING SEXUAL HARASSMENT: THE LAW AND POLITICS OF EVERYDAY LIFE; and Mia Cahill’s THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAW.  While there is some overlap with these academic works, especially in chronicling the historical origins and development of sexual harassment law, Baker’s use of social movement theory is an important distinction.


Upon first reading Baker’s book, I thought it would be an interesting addition to my Women, Law & Politics course. One of the themes of this course is the comparison of women’s political efforts to obtain equality (through grassroots action, legislation and electing women to office) with their legal efforts (individual and class action litigation and the development of common law). My intention with this theme was to explore questions involving the politics of law and social change that I had encountered as a graduate student through books like Gerald Rosenberg’s THE HOLLOW HOPE and Michael McCann’s RIGHTS AT WORK. One good thing about how long it has taken me to submit this review is that I have now had a chance to teach the book in my course and can add some reflections about that experience as well. [*97]


As Baker points out in the Introduction, women in America have been “fend[ing] off the sexual demands of those wielding economic power over their lives” since colonial times (p.1). It was not until the mid-1970s, however, that they began calling it “sexual harassment.” Part I of the book, which is arranged chronologically, explores how activists first articulated sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. Part II examines the growth of a social movement against sexual harassment in the late 1970s. Part III traces the impact of the growing movement on public policy, including the first Supreme Court case in 1986, as well as the backlash against sexual harassment that followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


The first chapter chronicles six legal cases alleging sexual harassment filed under Title VII between 1971 and 1975. In only one of these cases, brought by Diane Williams and decided in the D.C. District Court by Judge Charles Richey, did the plaintiff prevail. Baker offers details about the circumstances of both the winning and losing cases, and the reasoning used by the judges to decide the claims. She also connects the beginning of the movement against sexual harassment to the civil rights movement by showing how several of these early African American women plaintiffs relied on networks of civil rights organizations for support and legal representation. Especially interesting in this chapter was her inclusion of media reaction to the WILLIAMS case, much of which mocked Judge Richey and trivialized the decision (p.22).


The next chapter offers a detailed account of the grassroots collective action of Working Women United (WWU) and the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion (AASC), which raised awareness among women, assisted women who had experienced sexual harassment and conducted empirical research on the phenomenon. WWU organized in Ithaca, New York, in response to the denial of unemployment benefits to Carmita Wood, an administrative assistant at Cornell University. Women who had been working in rape crisis centers organized AASC in Cambridge Massachusetts. Through in-depth interviews with many of the participants, Baker is able to give the reader a real sense of the personalities of those involved and the ebb and flow of each organization over time.


After discussing subsequent legal developments around sexual harassment in the workplace and in education, the book details the role blue-collar women and union workers in non-traditional occupations played in the growing movement. This group of women succeeded in getting regulations against sexual harassment from the Department of Labor and broadening the legal definition of sexual harassment to include “hostile environment” claims. These chapters offered a fascinating case study for my students in the contrast between political and legal strategies, as well as liberal and radical feminism. As we were discussing Baker’s description of AASC members who “placed sexual harassment within a broader critique of capitalism, patriarchy and racism,” one student raised his hand to ask a question. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why would anyone criticize capitalism?” It was certainly a “teachable moment.” [*98]


While later chapters presented important evidence documenting how the growth in the importance of women’s rights, the development of feminist theory and coverage in the popular media shaped the progression of the movement against sexual harassment, my students tended to react to these chapters as a series of “this happened, then that happened, then something else happened.” These chapters would have perhaps been more accessible if they had been organized differently, or connected more effectively to the general points about social movements that Baker discusses in the Introduction and Conclusion.


One of the more interesting class discussions from these chapters focused on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). We compared the role that Eleanor Holmes Norton played as head of the EEOC during the Carter administration, especially how she pushed for the  development of  the influential EEOC guidelines on sexual harassment, and the impact of Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Clarence Thomas as her successor at the EEOC. Students recognized this as a noteworthy example of the importance of not ignoring the work of administrative agencies, whether in the context of political or legal activism, in achieving social change.


Subsequent chapters offered an engaging and detailed account of the political, social and legal backlash against the emerging concept of sexual harassment from both the right and the left in the 1980s. Despite this backlash, Baker concludes that “the history of the movement against sexual harassment is in many ways an incredible success story” (p.177). Yet women continue to report high rates of sexual harassment in education and in the workplace. This reality offered another opportunity for students to think about what it might take, in terms of political and legal strategies, for women to achieve equality.


Perhaps because of my previous work as an employment lawyer, I have looked for books in my courses that would help students appreciate the personal stories behind legal cases. SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND THE LAW: THE MECHELLE VINSON CASE, by Augustus B. Cochran, worked well for that purpose in this course, although students found it singularly dissatisfying that after the Supreme Court’s decision, the case settled on secret terms, without ever having a trial. Never mind the empirical reality that the vast majority of civil cases do, in fact, settle. CLASS ACTION: THE STORY OF LOIS JENSON AND THE LANDMARK CASE THAT CHANGED SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAW, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, chronicles the 23-year saga, involving three trials and multiple appeals, of the first successful sexual harassment class action case, brought by a group of women miners in Minnesota. What I considered a great book for helping students understand some of the real costs of a litigation strategy, was for my students simply “too much reading.” So I have had to content myself with viewing “North Country,” the movie starring Charlize Theron which is based on the book, and then discussing how the Hollywood treatment changed the story of the case.


Using THE MOVEMENT AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT in my [*99] Women, Law & Politics course provided a great opportunity for students to not only be exposed to the individual experiences of women who stood up against sexual harassment but also to recognize that real change is often, if not always, the product of the efforts and sacrifices of many different people over sometimes long periods of time. I can definitely recommend it for use in upper level college courses, whether in women’s studies, sociology, legal studies or political science, if you have similar learning objectives.







Cahill, Mia L. 2001. THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAW. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.


Cochran, Augustus B. 2004. SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND THE LAW: THE MECHELLE VINSON CASE. Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Press.


MacKinnon, Catherine A. 2005. “The Logic of Experience: The Development of Sexual Harassment Law” in WOMEN’S LIVES, MEN’S LAWS. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Marshall, Anna Maria. 2005. CONFRONTING SEXUAL HARASSMENT: THE LAW AND POLITICS OF EVERYDAY LIFE. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.


McCann, Michael W. 1994. RIGHTS AT WORK: PAY EQUITY REFORM AND THE POLITICS OF LEGAL MOBILIZATION. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Rosenberg, Gerald N. 1991. THE HOLLOW HOPE: CAN COURTS BRING ABOUT SOCIAL CHANGE? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.





WILLIAMS v. BELL, 587 F.2d 1240 (DC Cir. 1978).


© Copyright 2010 by the author, Lori A. Johnson.