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The First Brave Woman Who Alleged ‘Sexual Harassment’

Photo courtesy T.J. Crews

Before There Was #MeToo, There Was Carmita Dickerson Wood.

Before 1975, there was no such thing as “sexual harassment.” And then, on a university campus in upstate New York, one woman had had enough.

Women had been sexually harassed for eons, of course — but up until the mid-1970s, there was no legal vocabulary for talking about the sexualized intimidation women endure at work. Though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act had prohibited sex discrimination in the workplace since 1964, courts had yet to recognize the inappropriate sexual behavior of male bosses toward female employees as a form of discrimination.

In Ithaca, N.Y., in 1975, women finally found the right words to describe the problem. That’s why, following Time magazine’s naming of 2017’s sexual harassment “silence breakers” as Person of the Year, we’d like to pay tribute to the life of Carmita Dickerson, who died in 2015.

Because, before there could be #MeToo, someone had to be the first to say, “This is happening to me.”

***

It is 1971, and Carmita Wood has a good job. The nuclear studies lab at Cornell University, where she has worked since 1966, has promoted her to administrative assistant. She is the first woman to attain this position.

All her adult life, Carmita has been working. She was still a teenager when she had her first baby and got married for the first time; before long, she left the guy and went to work full time to support her daughter. Since then, she has worked as a waitress, a hash house cook — anything to make ends meet. Husbands, some alcoholic and abusive, have come and gone.

This promotion, as she will recall many years later to her grandson, is a big opportunity. Carmita can earn a good paycheck, provide for her children, and take college classes at the same time: not an easy feat in mid-1970s America. Unemployment is high, gas prices are rising, and the economy is in recession. But things are looking up for Carmita. She joins a prestigious local club, becoming only the second woman to be admitted, and takes out a $10,000 loan to remodel her house.

Then, at work, the boss begins coming on to her.

At a faculty cocktail party a year earlier, he had greeted her, in the presence of his wife, with a “Good evening” and his hand on her bottom. Now, since the promotion, he and Carmita are working in closer proximity. During business meetings, he makes sexual comments, brushes up against her, pins her between his body and her desk. As she would later testify, he would “stand with his hands shaking in his pockets and rock against the back of a chair, as if he were stimulating his genitals.”

Two years into her role as the lab’s administrative assistant, Carmita is tasked with organizing the office Christmas party. At the event—as recounted in the book “Equal: Women Reshape American Law,” by Fred Strebeigh—her boss repeatedly asks her to dance. She refuses. He pulls her to the dance floor anyway. He places his hands under her sweater and works his way up to her shoulders until her back is exposed. He rubs his hands up and down her bare back, in front of everyone at the party.

Humiliated, Wood complains to at least two co-workers. Also, as she has done on several occasions over the past two years, she complains to her direct supervisor about the boss’s behavior. But, as she later recalls to the Syracuse Post-Standard: “He told me any mature woman should be able to handle it.”

Carmita tries to get transferred to a different department, but Cornell denies her request. She begins experiencing excruciating pain in her hand and arm. Finally, in June 1974, just before her boss is to return from a leave of absence, Carmita makes the difficult decision to resign.

Unable to find another job, she applies for unemployment benefits in late 1974. At a hearing with the New York State Department of Labor, she describes her reasons for quitting as health-related. The Department of Labor rejects her claim, determining that she quit “for personal non-compelling reasons.”

Carmita appeals, and this time she brings two co-workers as witnesses, as well as her direct supervisor to testify that he would recommend her for other work at the university. For the first time, Carmita tells her story. Throughout the hearing, the Department of Labor representative cracks jokes. Once again, her claim is rejected. Once again, the reason they give is that she left her job for “personal non-compelling reasons.”

A few days later, Carmita goes to the office of the Human Affairs Program at Cornell. She has heard that its Women’s Section might be able to help. She meets Lin Farley, Susan Meyer, and Karen Sevigne, and tells them her story. They are determined to help her. But first, they need to find a name for what Carmita and so many other women were experiencing. A small group gathers to brainstorm and finally settles on a term: “sexual harassment.”

Armed with the words to succinctly describe this common experience, Farley, Meyer, and Sevigne get to work. They form an organization called Working Women United, with Carmita as a founding member. They send a letter to lawyers around the country and hand out fliers.

Carmita publishes an op-ed piece in the Ithaca Journal on April 24, 1975, writing: “Women must be judged on their ability to perform their jobs — not on whether we maintain a sexual rapport with our bosses… it constitutes a pattern of sexual harassment that is degrading, demeaning, and causes a steady erosion of our self respect and personal dignity.”

The same month, she tells the Syracuse Post-Standard: “To tell the truth, I don’t think my case has a chance. But I’ll keep on fighting because it’s such an important issue for all women.”

Then on May 4, 1975, Working Women United sponsors the first rally against sexual harassment. The New York Times covers the event in a story published in August and uses “sexual harassment” in the headline. Suddenly, everyone is talking about sexual harassment, a term that didn’t exist a few months prior.

Within a few years, thanks to the tireless efforts of activist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon and others, courts begin to recognize sexual harassment at work as a form of sex-based discrimination.

* * *

Many journalists over the past 40-plus years — as well as Lin Farley herself, who’s credited with inventing the term — have cited Carmita Wood as an inspiration for the movement against sexual harassment.

Yet in August 1975, Carmita was notably absent from the New York Times article on sexual harassment, an article that features Farley and numerous other women from the Cornell area. As sexual harassment came into the national spotlight for the first time, Carmita wasn’t part of the story.

Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Carmita found herself ostracized. Her grandson T.J. Crews tells Legacy she was “branded as a black sheep” by the local community as she continued to fight for unemployment benefits — until, finally, she exhausted her appeals. Out of options, Carmita left her hometown and moved to California to begin again.

She finished raising her youngest and helped raise her grandson. She worked in a law firm and a retirement home, rented out rooms in her house, and continued to work part-time even after retiring. A stroke and then dementia eventually slowed her down.

According to Crews, Carmita was a “scrapper,” a “strong” woman who survived alcoholic and abusive husbands, colon cancer, diabetes — “anything that life threw at her. She would get knocked down and get right back up.”

Though Carmita ultimately wasn’t successful in her unemployment claim against Cornell, she didn’t stay down for long. Despite significant challenges in her life, she was able to achieve a certain amount of success, to put a roof over her children’s heads, to help her kids grow and achieve successes of their own. This is what she was most proud of, Crews says.

(Her biggest regret in life, her grandson adds, also had to do with motherhood. During a rough time, when she was barely able to feed the two children she then had, she had a baby and decided to give him up for adoption. Though later in life she tried to find him, she was never able to connect with her son.)

What would she have made of the current flood of women speaking out against sexual harassment today? “If she were alive,” Crews says, “she would be absolutely outraged that women are still [having to fight] the same fight she started 40 plus years ago.”

When Carmita’s accused harasser died in 2002, a national Associated Press obituary cited his many important contributions to physics: atom bomb pioneer, Fulbright and Guggenheim fellow, established the Cornell Laboratory of Nuclear Studies. Cornell University named a meadow after him. He has a Wikipedia page.

When Carmita died Feb. 17, 2015, having resumed using her maiden name of Dickerson, her family placed an obituary notice in the Ithaca Journal. The obit lists her family members, including her beloved cat Precious, as well as her hobbies and passions: painting, writing poetry, acting in local theater, participating in community affairs.

It also mentions Carmita’s important contribution to society: “In 1970s she stood against sexual harassment in the workplace. She was also responsible for the movement which makes this a form of discrimination which is now illegal.”

In the obituary’s guest book, a condolence message from Lin Farley pays tribute to Carmita’s impact on the world: “Carmita was a special woman with style and flair and courage. It was one of the great pleasures of my life to work with her on the issue of sexual harassment of women at work. Heaven will be a better place.”