#BlackWomenBuiltThat: Mechelle Vinson and Black Womens’ Space in the Fight to Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

“I don’t feel ashamed, I don’t feel that I shouldn’t have stood up for my rights, because I feel that I am being me now. Before I was a lie. I wasn’t myself. I was living in someone else’s world, but not a real world. So now I am living in the world as it is. And I’m standing up for what I believe in . . . that I am a human being, regardless to my color, to my sex, regardless to how one individual may look at me. I have a purpose to be in life here, just as you or anyone else.
These are Mechelle Vinson’s reflections as she recounted the fallout from coming forward with her stories of sexual harassment and assault in her workplace. Her words could be those of a worker who has come forward in the momentum of the #metoo movement, who has boldly said #TIMESUP, who has dared to put themselves out into the world to hold their harassers, abusers, and employers accountable.
In fact, Mechelle’s words are actually timeless echoes from over 30 years ago. They are timeless because sexual harassment and assault in the workplace are still threats in the workplace which (many, too many) women must combat and negotiate around- to not rock the boat, to not lose their jobs, to not have their characters dragged through a judgmental public eye. Mechelle herself began laying the groundwork for the fight to end sexual harassment and assault in the workplace over 40 years ago when she sued her employer for sexual harassment. Her case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, ultimately reached the Supreme Court and created the foundation for sexual harassment law as we know it today. It was groundbreaking especially because the court listened to Mechelle’s testimony about her story and the things that happened to her, the highest court in the country listened to and found for a Black woman. Sexual harassment law: #blackwomenbuiltthat.
Mechelle’s lasting impact on something as huge as the legal landscape for gender equity is also timeless, as Black women have led the way to monumental change in countless other areas. But there is another element to her reflections, her words, her story, the timelessness of it all, which also persists today: the (in)visibility of Black women in the fight to end workplace sexual harassment and assault. Our report on EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) data shows that Black women filed sexual harassment charges at three times the rate of white women, in every industry. Yet, Black women have yet to occupy the same space and public attention in these movements which they built, as white women and non-Black women of color. Alyyson Hobbs discussed in One Year of #metoo: The Legacy of Black Women’s Testimonies, “despite the enduring legacy of testimony by black women, white women have often played the protagonists in the history of sexual violence, and black women have been relegated to the supporting cast.”
As Mechelle’s words, story, and foundational change continue to reach us across the decades, let us also take stock of the space Black women must have in the stories we tell about change, and listen to the Black women who continue to move these needles forward.