History Ph.D. Dissertations


Not “Part of the Job”: Sexual Harassment Policy in the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Women’s Economic Citizenship, 1975–1991

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Liette Gidlow

Second Advisor

Leigh Ann Wheeler (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Donald Nieman (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Neal Jesse (Committee Member)


This project examines the history of federal sexual harassment policy in the United States between 1975 and 1991. It considers the origins of sexual harassment policy in the mid-1970s and its addition to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) anti-discrimination policy in 1980. Two questions direct this study: Why and how did sexual harassment policy originate in the 1970s? How did policymakers then re-frame it once feminist activists no longer controlled the issue's definition? This dissertation argues that sexual harassment policy originated in the 1970s because working women and second-wave feminists succeeded in framing the problem as one of women's economic citizenship rights, or women's right to work without being sexually harassed. Once feminists lost this influence in the 1980s, conservatives including Reagan administration officials, members of Congress, and anti-feminist activists challenged the EEOC's policy and altered its enforcement by lessening its protections for working women in favor of employers.

Several sources inform this study, including EEOC records, legal cases, congressional hearings, government documents, and scholarship on second-wave feminism and economic citizenship. It finds that, after defining sexual harassment, feminists argued for public policy to stop it. It further finds that once the EEOC implemented its policy, feminists encountered resistance to how they defined the problem by male workers, employers, and newly empowered conservatives. Finally, this project concludes that these events left questions about employer liability for sexual harassment unanswered by 1991 when the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas scandal put the issue at the forefront of American political thought and culture.

This dissertation contributes to current literature on the history of women's inclusion in the workplace, the legacies of second-wave feminism in the U.S., and the rise of the New Right. By identifying how women argued for sexual harassment policy based on perceptions of economic citizenship, this project illuminates one of the many ways second-wave feminists struggled for equality. It also changes our understandings of the New Right by illustrating how the New Right's backlash against second-wave feminism shaped sexual harassment policy and, ultimately, led to where the EEOC's policy stands today in not protecting working women as it had originally.