Sexual Harassment: A Feminist Phrase That Transformed the Workplace

AuthorConstance Backhouse
ProfessionProfessor of law at the University of Ottawa
chapter 8
Constance Backhouse2
I stood at the spea ker’s podium and tentatively sur veyed my audience.
The room was packe d. The members of the audience seemed both t ense
and uncertain. It was 20 March 1981, and a crowd had assembled in Ot-
tawa’s city hall to li sten to the city’s rst workshop on the cont roversial
and novel topic: “sexual harassment of worki ng women.” I was the fea-
tured guest speaker, invited because I was a co-author of the rst book
published in Canada on the subject. Maude Barlow, who ran the oce
of equal opportunity for Ottawa’s socially progressive mayor Marian
Dewar, had been the one who approached me to ask if I would speak to
1 Constance Ba ckhouse, “Sexu al Harassment: A F eminist Ph rase That Trans-
formed the Workplace” (2012) 24:2 CJ WL 275. Reprinted w ith permiss ion
from Univers ity of Toronto Press www.utpjou Ar ticle © 2012 by
the Canadian Journal of Wome n and the Law. Copyright in t he content of the
article r emains wit h CJWL.
2 Constance Backhous e, CM, O Ont, FRSC, is a pr ofessor of law at the Univer-
sity of Ott awa.
The author would l ike to than k Beth Atcheson for sug gesting tha t she
document t he history of the e orts taken to el iminate se xual haras sment
over the past de cades. Without her urg ing, this na rrative might n ever have
been writ ten. The author als o wants to than k the women — Beth Atches on,
Beth Symes, D iana Majury, and L orraine Greaves — who ha ve worked with
her in the Fem inist Histor y Society to ch ronicle the his tory of the femin-
ist movement in C anada and Québe c through the publ ication of a series
of books. See Fem inist Hist ory Society, onli ne: Feminist Hi story Societ y
constance backhouse
the group. I had not met Maude bef ore, but her warm welcome reassure d
me greatly th at morning. She was wonderf ul — astute, char ismatic, and
inspiri ng. Over breakfast, she had f ully coached me on the gender pol-
itics of the event. Sexual harassment was a huge problem wit hin the
city’s workforce. Some of the women who would be seated in the audi-
ence had suered personally from unwanted sexual overtures. Among
the men would be some of the cit y’s most tenacious and ag rant perpe-
trators, who had been told that their attendance at the workshop was
mandator y. They would b e sitting in the front rows, a rms crossed in de-
ance, ready for a ght. T he feminists at city hal l wanted to transform
the cultu re. They hoped someone like me, perceived as a r adical outside
agitator, might be a ble to set the stage.
I remember joking w ith Maude, telling her that t hey needed a “mir-
acle worker.” It was a tall order. And it was at t hat precise moment that I
realized that these brave women i n Ottawa truly believe d that a speech
about sexual harassment could dismant le a piece of the sexist world
around them. I caught my breath as I recognized how much power we
understood to be wrapped up in this new idea of “sexual harassment.”
I looked around the room again, took a deep breath, and launched into
a speech I had given several hundred times across Canada and the
United States in t he past two years. An d as I did, in the back of my m ind,
I could not help but reect on what had brought me to this place and
this moment.
My life had been deeply enmeshed in the feminist campaign to
eradicate sex ual harassment since the s pring of 1978, when Leah Cohen
and I had begun full-time work on a book. The story of how that book
came to be published a ye ar later as The Secret Oppression: Sex ual Harass-
ment of Working Women, may oer one way of tryi ng to understand how
the idea of sexua l harassment came to hold s uch potency.3 My reections
are those of a sing le feminist, working w ithin a much wider and power-
ful movement. Ma ny feminists played pivotal roles in advancing the
campaign against sex ual harassment, and others would tell this story
dierently, and probably be tter. I oer these memories simply as the re-
counting of one path , one set of observations, a long a trajectory that w as
much broader tha n any one woman’s comprehension.
3 Constance Backhou se & Leah Cohen, The S ecret Oppression: Sexual H arass-
ment of Working Women (Toronto: Macmil lan, 1978) [Backhouse & Cohen].

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT