‘Sexual harassment’, the phrase and its exposure, was born in the radicalizing crucibles of second wave consciousness-raising groups. In women-only spaces: living rooms, meeting halls, classrooms, they identified personal experiences, discovered that other women shared them, and realized that “the personal is the political.” Such was Cornell’s Women and Work class, formatted to elicit students’ real work experiences, facilitated by sociologist Lyn Farley in the 1970s.
Numerous stories emerged of being touched, harangued for sexual favors, bargained with and coerced by men. Like today, this exposure was explosive. Unlike today, women’s gatherings were erupting across the country, lifting into the light of consciousness a ubiquitous, wide range of violating and violent behavior inflicted on women: rape, wife battering and murder, sexual harassment, childhood molestation, and emotional abuse.
Connecting the dots, feminists developed the intellectual framework for understanding sexual harassment. Not an isolated phenomenon, it belongs on a continuum of mutually reinforcing behaviors and messages that permeate women’s lives from street cat calls, to calling women “girls”, to a steady diet of objectifying advertisement, to sexist jokes and pornography, to daily reports of rape (often belittled and denied), to domestic violence and murder.