A History of Sexual Harassment Laws in the United States

A History of Sexual Harassment Laws
(Updated June 2023)

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not a recent issue, but for centuries there was no legal recourse for victims. Thankfully, employees are becoming more empowered to speak out and take action against their harassers.

In the United States, the groundwork for establishing federal sexual harassment laws and eventually making sexual harassment illegal in the workplace was established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Although sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, it took many years for U.S. courts and legislation to define it and create laws that would protect workers. In fact, the first sexual harassment cases were not brought until the mid-1970s, and the U.S. Supreme Court did not hear a sexual harassment case until a decade later.

But once cases reached the point where decisions were being issued and the issues were identified in the public eye, the wheels were set in motion for establishing the foundation for how sexual harassment in the workplace is currently interpreted. Today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal discrimination laws, defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

With that said, here is a timeline of some of the most significant events and laws that helped define what is today classified as sexual harassment in the workplace.

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Sexual Harassment Laws in the U.S.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is enacted. It establishes the legal foundation for preventing sexual harassment; however, at the time, sexual harassment was not included in the legislation. Although both men and women are covered under Title VII, it was originally intended to protect women in the workplace.


The Florida Commission on Human Relations is established to enforce the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA), which was modeled after Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. The law prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools and broadens the reach of sexual harassment laws.


Barnes v. Train, which is commonly thought to be the first sexual harassment (though the term was never used) case in the United States, is tried in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Barnes, who at the time worked for the EPA’s Equal Opportunities Division, claimed that her job was eliminated because she rejected her supervisor’s sexual advances. The Court rules that there was no discrimination on the basis that the supervisor found Barnes attractive and felt rejected that she would not have sex with him.


In Williams v. Saxbe, Williams, a public information specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice, had refused a sexual advance made by her supervisor in 1972 and then was repeatedly harassed and humiliated. She was ultimately terminated later that year. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of Williams and first recognized quid pro quo sexual harassment as a type of gender-based or sexual discrimination.


In Barnes v. Costle, the 1974 case is reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals (DC Circuit). It determines that Barnes was indeed retaliated against by her supervisor and that he sexually harassed her, which violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Barnes is awarded $18,000 to cover back pay and lost promotions.


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The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by prohibiting sex discrimination on the “basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”


The EEOC officially establishes guidelines for sexual harassment in the workplace and defines it as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” It also states that sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination that is prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


The U.S. Supreme Court addresses sexual harassment for the first time in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. This is a landmark case because the Court determines “that severe or pervasive” sexual harassment of an employee by their supervisor violates federal law. In addition, the Court rules that if the employer knew of the sexual harassment, it’s their responsibility to take action against the perpetrator.


In an effort to provide more protection for employees being discriminated against in the workplace, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which is signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. President Bush had threatened to veto the bill prior to Anita Hill’s allegations that year against her former boss Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Before the Act is passed, employees had limited rights when it came to suing their employers for discrimination and harassment. The Act not only gave plaintiffs the right to a jury trial in federal court but also the right to collect compensatory and punitive damages from their employers.


The Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 is passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Governor Lawton Chiles. The Act amends the FCRA passed in the 1960s and prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status. It also changes the procedures for filing employment discrimination complaints and makes compensatory and punitive damages available to employees.


In Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court rules that victims of sexual harassment don’t have to prove that they experienced physical or psychological injury from their harasser for it to be defined as sexual harassment.


The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is passed by Congress and signed into law by President William J. Clinton. In relation to sexual harassment in the workplace, it permits evidence of the history of the sexual harasser to be introduced and limits evidence related to the sexual history of the accuser.


The Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) is passed by Congress and signed into law by President William J. Clinton. In essence, the law makes members of Congress subject to the same employment laws as other American workers.


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In Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton the U.S. Supreme Court rules that employers are liable for sexual harassment by their employees even if threats and favors aren’t carried out. However, employers have grounds for defending themselves if they can prove that they took prompt action to prevent the harassment by the employee and took prompt action to respond to complaints of harassment.


The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education that it’s illegal to punish someone for reporting sexual harassment and discrimination.

Also that year, Congress passes the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which allocates federal funds to aid victims of sexual violence and assault. Among other things, the funds can be used to ensure that victims are able to pay for a fair trial.


President Joe Biden signed The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 into law on March 3, 2022, altering the Federal Arbitration Act. It offers individuals alleging sexual assault or harassment the opportunity to bring these claims to court, regardless of prior agreements to arbitrate such disputes. This option extends to class or collective actions, even if these rights were previously waived.


President Joe Biden signed the Speak Out Act into law on December 7, 2022. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced this act to limit the enforceability of predispute nondisclosure and nondisparagement clauses related to sexual assault and harassment disputes. This legislative action was largely driven by the MeToo movement’s concern over nondisclosure agreements’ potential misuse in silencing victims in corporate America.

Were You A Victim of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

It’s been a long road in enacting legislation that makes sexual harassment illegal in the workplace. However, there are laws that are now in place help protect employees from unwanted sexual advances and conduct of a sexual nature that can affect their ability to do their job.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual harassment and/or wrongfully terminated or retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment, you are protected under federal and state laws. Wenzel Fenton Cabassa, P.A., can help you understand those laws and provide sound counsel regarding your case. Contact us today; the initial consultation is free.

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