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At Yale, Working Through the Knot of Sex Harassment

Led by Catharine MacKinnon, Who Wrote the Book on the Issue, Scholars Reassess the Law in the Wake of the Clinton-Jones Case

March 04, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Before there was Bill and Monica, before there was Bill and Paula, before there was Clarence and Anita, and before there was Bob (Packwood) and much of his female staff, there was Yale.

There was Yale, whose law school attracted a powerful corps of female students in the early, heady days of liberation--and there was Catharine A. MacKinnon, a graduate student in political science. For a required supervised analytic writing paper in spring 1976, MacKinnon offered a scrupulous inquiry titled "Sexual Harassment of Working Women."

A cheap feel, a dirty joke, an unwanted advance: This was the first effort to provide a framework to redress the kind of degrading behavior that probably has gone on since the first office or assembly line was set up in a cave. MacKinnon's paper was swiftly expanded into a book. The sexual harassment genie was out of the bottle, and the American workplace would never be the same.

MacKinnon puts it more bluntly.

"It really took a certain foot off women's necks," she said.

Over the weekend, as sexual harassment charges continued to dog one of Yale Law School's most famous graduates, several hundred scholars from around the world gathered at President Clinton's alma mater to ponder the perplexities of what some say is this country's hottest, fastest-changing field of law.

This was a learned convocation, void of any of the "he-said, she-said" shouting matches that usually accompany talk of sexual harassment. But just in case the intricacies of this evolving field were in doubt, no one could even agree on how the problem should be pronounced: Har-RAS-ment or HAIR-as-ment?

No one debated the topic's timeliness. To begin with, the furor over Paula Jones' sexual harassment case against the president has provoked a considerable backlash. And allegations that Clinton had sex in the White House with a former intern have only stoked these antagonistic fires. As MacKinnon acknowledged, "Monica Lewinsky's case is being used to incoherently ridicule sexual harassment law."

Critics--many of them unlikely Clinton defenders--say sexual harassment lawsuits turn too quickly into witch hunts. Regulations that prohibit sexual harassment are unnecessary or redundant, this faction contends. Lawsuits that claim sexual harassment may be easy to start, this line of argument holds, but they are almost always difficult to resolve.

Maybe it took the combination of Yale Law School graduate Anita Hill, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (also a Yale Law grad) and an alleged pubic hair on an alleged can of Coke to establish sexual harassment as a field-day subject for the news media. Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA, called Thomas' 1991 confirmation hearings "a teach-in, as it were, for sexual harassment." By contrast, she cautioned, the charges and countercharges surrounding the matters of Jones and Lewinsky have turned those cases into "a teach-in for misinformation and misinterpretation" about sexual harassment.

With her piercing intelligence and passionate feminist politics, MacKinnon was hailed repeatedly over the weekend for her pioneering work. She was in graduate school, pursuing a doctorate and a law degree simultaneously, when she undertook the project that became "Sexual Harassment of Working Women." Now in "something like its 13th printing" from Yale University Press, its author said, that effort was launched as a political theory of the women's movement. What MacKinnon decided was that it all came down to law: "To me, I thought that not being equal was the problem."

Up until then, MacKinnon said, most women had assumed that workplace harassment was "just part of life." So right away, she said, she knew she had hit on something big.

"It's quite amazing," she remembered, "to discover the most obvious thing in the world that was hanging around and everybody was acting like it didn't exist."

Over the weekend, the original typewritten edition of "Sexual Harassment" sat enshrined in a makeshift reliquary, a glass case next to the sign-up table. By speaker after speaker, MacKinnon was lauded as a teacher, a friend and a ground breaker who figured out that sexual harassment is about what women--and in some cases men--do not want.

But this was a choir of the converted. MacKinnon, who teaches law at the University of Michigan, has devout defenders and fierce foes. University of Illinois psychologist Louise Fitzgerald falls firmly into the former category, but in a recent sexual harassment lawsuit, Fitzgerald noted, a female plaintiff was apparently supposed to be insulted when her opposing counsel described her as being "part of Catharine MacKinnon and her ilk."

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