Sexual Harassment...and Beyond

Delivered at the first FEE National Convention, Las Vegas, Nevada, May 4, 2002.

by Wendy McElroy

Good morning.

I could have easily entitled this talk "21st century feminism" because Iíll be giving you a status report on the state of feminism, on the feminist movement. As a backdrop and context, Iíll be using libertarian or individualist feminism -- what I call ifeminism -- whose home on the Internet is "ifeminists.com."

I choose sexual harassment as the issue on which to focus because I think it captures both the incredible damage that politically correct feminism, "old feminism," has done to society and one of the main challenges to ifeminism. Namely, to dismantle the sexual harassment industry which is the major remaining stronghold of old feminism.

My talk is one of political optimism despite the fact that we are living through terrible times, especially terrible for libertarians who cherish peace and personal freedom. I don't know what to expect from the world at large in the next few months. I haven't even recovered from the shock of seeing the World Trade Center collapse before my eyes. Large areas of politics have suddenly become unpredictable to me.

I would never have predicted, for example, that airports would become mini-police states, where national guardsmen with M16s patrol, where customers are treated like criminal suspects. Yet it happened...overnight and with next to no protest.

I say this because I want you to know that my optimism doesn't come from ignorance.

It comes from concentrating on the politics I still do understand, the areas where I can still have an effect. I concentrate on grassroots movements, in which individuals can make an incredible difference. And it is in the grassroots movements that are spreading like wildfire across North America that I see the future of liberty. I see it in the flood of people who -- since 9-11 -- are buying guns to defend themselves; in the surge of parents who homeschool; in the men's movement, where fathers are trying to abolish the family court system because of its bias toward women; I see it in the rise of ifeminism.

The old paradigms, the old solutions are failing and people know it. The old establishment of feminism is crumbling and fast. The National Organization for Women lost over 50% of its membership as a result of its arrogant hypocrisy during President Clintonís sexual abuse of a series of women. And NOW's membership continues to fall.

(I read a news item a few weeks ago that reported on a "recruiting" session NOW recently held in Broward County, Florida. You may remember that Broward was one of the democratic/liberal counties in the "hanging chad" recount fiasco in which Gore supporters tried to find more votes for "their guy." Four women showed up to NOW's public forum. Three of them left midway.)

The crumbling continues. A cash-starved Ms. Magazine recently merged with the Feminist Majority in order to survive. Policies that were formerly unquestioned and unquestionable -- like affirmative action -- are being overturned in court decisions and state legislatures.

The ranks of "old feminism" understand very well that feminism is undergoing a revolutionary change, a change that doesn't bode well for the status quo. Last November I did a debating tour of American universities with Kathleen Barry, a leading radical feminist mostly known for her writings on prostitution. I was amazed...and so was she. The students didn't want to hear what she had to say. Afterward, Kathleen told the lecture agent who had arranged the venues that she no longer intended to speak in public on prostitution or pornography -- which were the two topics we were debating.

Trying to find a replacement, the agent went down what was a virtual honor list of radical feminists...none of them would debate...even for good money. Finally we found another Canadian who said "yes"...so...next November, two Canadian feminists will be imported to U.S. campuses, telling American kids what to think about sex -- specifically pornography and prostitution.

I would prefer to talk about sexual harassment. For two reasons. First, it is still the greatest "success" story of politically-correct feminism. Second, it is the stronghold of old feminism because of the laws, policies and institutions that are in place and which will take both time and real effort to wipe clean.

But, before expanding on those points, I should define what I mean by sexual harassment and explain where I stand on the issue.

Briefly, by sexual harassment I mean the sexual harassment industry, as Daphne Patai calls it in "Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and The Future of Feminism." I mean the laws and institutions that regulate which attitudes toward women can be manifested, what language about women can be expressed...in the workplace and in academia. And when I say "institutions" I mean the court system or the disciplinary committees at universities in front of which "the accused" must defend their careers.

By sexual harassment I do not mean unwanted touching, grabbing or any other form of physical aggression. There are laws against battery and assault and they've been on the books for many years. All that was needed around 1980 was for those laws to be enforced. Instead sexual harassment zealots created a new category of law because their goal never was to protect women from physical violence. The goal was to control the attitudes of society so that only politically correct views could be expressed without punishment.

Thatís what I mean by sexual harassment.

Where do I stand on the issue? Punish physical aggression: but let attitudes and words flow freely. I agree with Patai's very well-argued conclusion that sexual harassment is an intentional and extremely successful gambit by PC feminists to, as Patai phrases it, "bring men to heel."

I said earlier that sexual harassment is old feminism's greatest success story. Laws against sexual harassment now regulate every business and organization of any real size, as well as every university and college in North America. Government reaches into the private sector and regulates attitudes and words to an extent that would be unimaginable in the 1960s, even the '70s. Yet the term "sexual harassment" only entered our culture about twenty years ago.

As a legal concept, it was introduced by the radical feminist Catharine Mackinnon in a book published in 1979 entitled "The Sexual Harassment of Working Women." In the book Mackinnon argued that violence against women in the workplace was not a form of battery or assault -- her objections were never about physical violence against women. She argued that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination, a violation of civil rights, that should be handled by civil lawsuits and under the Civil Rights Act. In 1980, the EEOC -- the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- expanded its guidelines to include sexual harassment. The first case that really established the idea of a hostile working environment was Meritor v. Vinson in 1986. That's how recent they are -- the sexual harassment policies with which we live. Even though it impacts the lives of every person in this room and may well impact the lives of your children, sexual harassment is only twenty years old.

There is a real sense in which this is encouraging news. We hear over and over again that you can't change society, that one person doesn't make a difference. You can't fight city hall. Yet society was profoundly changed within two decades and the change came largely from the extraordinary efforts of one woman: Catharine Mackinnon. Mackinnon accomplished a great deal -- a great evil -- but a great deal in a very short time. This gives me real hope that extraordinary efforts in the opposite direction can tear down sexual harassment. And more quickly than it was constructed.

Twenty years is about as long as it takes for a generation of people to realize that something isn't working. That sexual harassment policies don't solve a social problem...they create one.

But successfully dismantling sexual harassment means something more than simply eliminating policies and institutions...it means constructing an alternative way to handle what is now widely seen as unacceptable, intolerable behaviour.

When Lin Farley's book on sexual harassment appeared in 1978 -- and it is, as far as Iíve been able to tell, the first book on that subject -- it galvanized women. The book was entitled "Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job." And it chronicled appalling instances of brutal gender discrimination that literally destroyed women's careers and, arguably, their lives. I found it impossible to read the book and not walk away with a sense that something in society was badly wrong, badly askew.

Unfortunately, when there is a public outcry against some form of "unacceptable" behavior and the private sector offers no clear sense of how the problem can be handled, the default position becomes, "there ought to be a law." And that's what happened. Today, there is such "sensitivity" -- for want of a better word -- about sexual harassment that most businesses and organizations would probably enforce some sort of code even in the absence of governmental policies and the threat of lawsuits.

But this isn't enough. Ifeminists have to demonstrate first, that the private sector can handle sexual harassment...and second, that turning to law only creates more social discord.

Regarding the first goal, Joan Kennedy Taylor wrote a very valuable book that came out in 1999, entitled "What To Do When You Don't Want To Call The Cops: A Non-Adversarial Approach To Sexual Harassment." And right now, I am discussing a possible project with Warren Farrell -- a prominent leader in the men's movement -- in which he and I would team up and give presentations to corporations on how to avoid sexual harassment and how it can be handled privately.

Regarding the second goal -- the harm of government involvement -- it is important to stress two themes. First, that sexual harassment is based on assumptions that are not just anti-male, they are anti-female. Sexual harassment laws assume that women are not able to compete successfully with men on an even playing field, in a rough-and-tumble world of free speech: we are so weak and psychologically fragile as to require government protection in our social and professional interaction.

I don't know about other women, but I refuse to have those words describe me. It is an insult...an insult to women that government has institutionalized into law.

Second, it is important to hammer in the toll of human misery that has been inflicted upon those who are accused of sexual harassment. Universities, in particular. At universities, those accused have no presumption of innocence...that is something they must prove to committees that often have the power to ruin their lives. They have no right to face their accuser or to question witnesses, no right to a lawyer or even, necessarily, to know the exact charges being brought against them. And the charges can be brought for nothing more than assigning the wrong homework, telling the wrong joke, asking female students tough questions or not asking them enough questions.

Daphne Patai is very good at driving home the savagery of sexual harassment laws and policies. One third of her book, part II, is entitled "Typifying Tales." There she offers real life stories. For example...one case...a very over-weight and by all accounts a very popular, competent professor responded to a taunt shouted out in class by a female student. She rudely commented on the extreme 'size' of his chest: in response, he observed that she had no such problem. A witch-hunt of sexual harassment charges ensued. It was so extreme that the professor committed suicide. In a press release, the university's main concern was that the professor's death would not discourage other similarly "abused" women from "speaking out."

The abomination known as the sexual harassment industry must be swept away.

But how exactly do we accomplish this? I mentioned the incredible success of one woman's efforts, Catharine Mackinnon, which accomplished a great evil in a short period of time. And I sang the praises of grassroots movements. But cynics might say that this approach might work for the imposition of government and tyranny: it won't work for freedom.

I couldn't disagree more.

The political beauty of libertarianism, which too many people just "don't get" is that it is a populist ideology. Libertarianism deals with fundamental rights that are possessed by all human beings -- it defends life, liberty, and property...individual rights...in other words, it appeals to the common man. It doesn't support big business, corporations, the power elite, the system. It speaks out for the lowest common denominator -- and I use the word "common" with respect. Libertarianism speaks for the individual.

And, if you look at the history of libertarianism, it is the history of populist causes. You can talk about the early 19th century anti-Corn Law league in Britain or the 18th century American Revolution in what became the United States, the 19th century anti-slavery movement...they all testify to the groundswell appeal of libertarian ideas.

Right now I want to present just two examples of grassroots movements that achieved a tremendous stride for freedom in a short period time.

The first one came to pass basically because of one man. In 1862 the first Homestead Laws were passed by Congress and provided that any virtually citizen could acquire a tract of federally owned land, not to exceed 160 acres. Between 1862 and 1890, 370,000 homesteading applications were approved.

Homesteading wasn't perfect. Politics and corrupt land deals surrounded the Homestead Act, with an estimated 170 million acres of land being claimed by land speculators who had political ties. But even the land speculators were private owners. The upshot of the Homestead Act was to transfer an unprecedented amount of federal land from government into private hands where it is still owned today by individuals and families...not the government.

How did this come about? Through the efforts of one man -- basically a libertarian -- named George Henry Evans. He began a crusade for homesteading in 1829 with only the support of personal friends and a few newspapers. By 1850, of the 2000 some newspapers published in the United States, more than 600 supported homesteading.

Another 19th century libertarian grassroots movement was labor reform.

[Donít ever let people tell you that the left were pioneers in labor reform -- in advocacy for the working man and woman in America. Because it isn't true.]

The New England Labor Reform League was founded in 1869 with the mission statement of "free contracts, free money, free markets." One of its practical goals was to provide information on birth control to factory workers...because unwanted children were viewed as a major cause -- if not the major cause of women's economic poverty. The reform league organized "lady agents." These were sales women who toured the countryside with publications issued by the publishing arm of the League. The women entered factories to sell pamphlets to the workers, went town to town talking to the editors of local papers, they stood on street corners delivering lectures to passers-by. Despite being arrested repeatedly, the lady agents sold hundreds of thousands of pamphlets to factory workers in New England.

How effective was the New England Labor Reform League? In November 1877, the libertarian Ezra Heywood -- the main force behind the league -- was arrested on obscenity charges under the Comstock laws for delivering a speech advocating birth control. In protest over his arrest, a petition for his release received over 70,000 signatures -- the largest number of signatures in U.S. history to that date. Six months after his imprisonment, Heywood received a full pardon from President Hayes.

Both of these -- homesteading and the New England Labor Reform League -- are examples of how grassroots libertarianism, which speaks to the common person about daily concerns, can catch fire and become an irresistible political force.

This sort of reform is not only possible...the history of libertarianism is packed full of such success stories. Of individuals who make a huge difference. Forgive me if I can't resist inserting here my favorite quote from Margaret Mead: "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

In feminism, the time for change is now. Not only on the issue of sexual harassment, but...beyond. Like the title of this talk.

Old feminism is losing ground across the board. Affirmative action: a recent court case decided that the military was unduly discriminating against white men in favor of women and minorities. State legislatures are arguing that affirmative action is unfair, something that would have been unheard of ten years ago. Established myths are being debunked: for example, the myth that women are the victims of domestic violence is being replaced by the fact -- as demonstrated by studies and Department of Justice statistics -- that men and women are battered at about the same level.

(Again..."Liberty for Women" destroys these myths... It demonstrates that women are protected, not endangered by gun ownership; the wage gap is a myth; being a housewife is a valid, respectable choice; pornography is just freedom of speech applied to sex; men are not political enemies -- they share the same political interest...individual freedom.)

The death of feminist mythology presents very exciting political opportunities... For example, the opportunity to achieve what I believe is the second major challenge facing ifeminism. And that is, to get gender out of law. To make the law gender blind. The make the application of law -- for example, in courts and police practices -- gender blind.

This is not necessarily a revolutionary goal. To me, it seems like a modest goal. But it is necessary to achieve before anything else can be accomplished.

In some cases getting gender out of the law means removing bias that favors women. For example, there is great bias in favor of women in the family court system, especially concerning the custody of children in divorce cases and support payments. And a grassroots movement has sprung up to address the problem...it is one of the most energetic, angry movements with one of the greatest potentials Iíve ever seen.

I am talking about the men's movement, which is a loose coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to removing bias against men from the system. And it is about to explode in North America. Why do I say that?

Let me tell you a story.

In the early morning hours of January 7, 43-year-old Derrick K. Miller walked up to a security guard at the entrance to the San Diego courthouse, where a family court had recently ruled against him on overdue child support. Clutching court papers in one hand, he drew out a gun with the other. Declaring: "you did this to me," he fatally shot himself through the skull.

Miller is not an isolated case. Consider Warren Gilbert who died of carbon monoxide poisoning, clutching a letter from the child protective service. Or Martin Romanchick ó the New York City police officer who hanged himself after being denied access due to charges brought by his ex-wife, which the court found to be frivolous.

There is an alarming rise in male suicides. According to a 1999 surgeon general's report, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in America, with men being four times more likely to kill themselves than women. A round of studies conducted in North America, Europe and Australia, suggests that one reason for the increase may be the discrimination fathers encounter in family courts, especially regarding the denial of access to their children.

One of the most aggressive campaigns that ifeminism has conducted over the last year is to extend a hand of goodwill toward the men's movement, towards men who are being destroyed by the system. For example, we've become a sister-site with the popular mensactivism.org. And I will be speaking in a few months at a men's counter-conference in Minneapolis which is being held in parallel with NOW's national conference in St. Paul. Ifeminism calls for the elimination of all laws and all application of law that discriminates on the basis of gender, whether or not the discrimination supposedly benefits women.

(By the way, I dispute the idea that legal privileges for women actually benefit women. For one thing, the sex being oppressed is made up of our lovers, fathers, sons, husbands, neighbors, and brothers. How can it benefit us to wrong them?)

The other side of the coin is to call -- with equal passion -- for the elimination of bias against women. For example...ifeminism has to take a strong stand against the current attack that is being waged on midwifery by the medical establishment. Take California as an example. And here I want to read from a letter I received from Faith Gibson, a midwife who is deeply involved in the fight to preserve midwifery and who also wrote the essay entitled "The Official Plan To Eliminate The Midwife 1899 -1999" ...again, in the anthology "Liberty for Women."

Faith writes of the multi-faceted attack that clearly seeks to eliminate midwives from the medical scene.

"The lobbyist for California consumer attorneys privately told us they would 'permit' midwives to remove the unworkable supervisory clause" -- that's the legal requirement that midwives must have physician supervision for home birth even though there is no requirement for physicians for provide it -- "they would permit midwives to remove the unworkable supervisory clause if we swapped it for a mandatory malpractice insurance clause. We of course would love to have equivalent (to docs) malpractice insurance but our 'pool' of midwives is so small that premiums for coverage would be twice our annual income."

"Every time a midwife transfers a laboring women to the hospital and an on-call obstetrician gets notified to come in, he makes a complaint to the medical board that she is practicing without a physician supervisor. When the medical board prosecutes a doctor or midwife, the price tag to the practitioner for legal fees is $50,000 to $100,000."

"The last straw is that there are no direct-entry midwifery schools in California so we are now capped at the max number of 130 midwives as there is no way to get licensed without moving to Florida or Washington state and doing a 3 years out of state program. Bottom line for all of this is that we are now moving towards a return to underground lay midwifery and a massive resurgence of 'planned unattended do-it-yourself' births. I could just cry."

Midwives are not the only victims of this planned, this forced obsolescence. Every woman is victimized because she is being denied an option, she is being denied choice, in the circumstances under which she chooses to give birth to her own children.

So these are two of the issues -- men's rights in family courts and women's rights in reproduction -- that illustrate the other great challenge facing ifeminists.com. The removal of the gender bias from the in the system.

I began by saying this talk was about political optimism and that is the theme on which I want to end as well.

At the risk of being repetitive, let me talk a bit more about grassroots movements. They are movements that begin with isolated individuals who become outraged with an injustice that affects their lives -- maybe the public school system, minimum sentencing laws, or the war on drugs. They become so outraged that they say "no" to authority. They usually begin by saying "no" on a local level, to their school board or city councilors. But, if the injustice they're complaining about is widespread, the voices multiply quickly to become a powerful political force. Perhaps the most powerful political force there exists: the voice of the people.

I am not advocating democracy or majority rule, here. All that I am saying is that populist causes -- causes that profoundly touch the daily lives of common people -- are the ones that ultimately shape politics. They are the ones that lead to real reform and sometimes to revolution. And libertarianism's forte...as I mentioned before...is populism. It is grassroots.

Now is the time to strike. A void is being left by the collapse of politically correct organizations like NOW. And it is being filled by organizations that take a principled stand on defending the free market and individualism. For example, the free-market advocate, Independent Woman's Forum -- representatives from which you see routinely interviewed on television alongside of or instead of representatives from NOW.

Or, for example, my organization, ifeminists.com. As NOW shrinks into oblivion, ifeminists.com grew by 300% last year and -- even though it is largely a one-woman creation -- ifeminists.com regularly gets over half-a-million hits a month.

People -- including females -- are tired of women having privileges rather than equality. They want an end to the political war between men and women. And they want government to get out of their personal lives.

Thank you.