The History of Sexual Harassment Law

Sexual harassment wasn’t recognized by the Supreme Court as a form of sex discrimination until the 1980s.

The practice of sexual harassment is centuries old. An early — and extreme — example of sexual harassment in the U.S were the sexual assaults on African American Women slaves by their owners, without any legal recourse available to the victims. Sex discrimination has only been illegal in the U.S since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even after this landmark law passed, the first sexual harassment cases were not brought until the 1970s — and the Supreme Court didn’t consider the issue until the 1980s.

The courts have since broadened their interpretation of what constitutes sexual harassment. Below is a brief timeline of the important dates in history that have shaped sexual harassment in the U.S as we know it today.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. (It’s commonly referred to as “Title VII,” because that’s the part of the Act that covers employment.) Title VII covers both men and women, but its original intent was to protect women in the workplace. This remains its main emphasis today.


Title IX of the Education Amendments is issued. This prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII.


In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court rules that sexual harassment can be sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruled that speech in itself can create a hostile environment which violates the law.


The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is passed. Congress modifies Title VII to add more protection against discrimination in the workplace. Among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 allows harassment and discrimination plaintiffs the right to a jury trial in federal court. It also gives plaintiffs the right to collect compensatory and punitive damages for the first time, subject to a cap based on the size of the employer.


The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 is passed. This limits acceptability of evidence of the past sexual history of the plaintiff in sexual harassment cases. It permits such evidence against sexual harassers accused of assault.


Congress passes the Government Accountability Act. This makes Congress’s own members subject to the same employment laws as the rest of the country.

Sexual harassment takes many forms, from subtle psychological pressure to outright sexual assault. If you are facing harassment at work, contact an experienced employment attorney.

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