“I’ve had a well of emotions springing up after Dr. Ford’s hearing and Kavanaugh’s nomination to The Supreme Court.”
Who hasn’t heard that recently from a friend and felt the same way? This quote is especially interesting because it’s from Mechelle Vinson, whose heroic determination led to an important milestone that we hope will continue to protect American women in the workplace.
I’m so grateful I was part of that change, but it’s just the beginning. We still have a lot to do, teaching our sons to respect women, and teaching our daughters: ‘Let no one treat you that way.’
Vinson shared these sentiments with me this week, and with the first anniversary of the #MeToo movement upon us, NextTribe wants to take a moment and honor Vinson, who had a very different interaction with the Supreme Court. Thirty-two years ago, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the nine justices ruled on Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, voting unanimously to make sexual harassment in the workplace a federal crime.
NextTribe recently heard from Mechelle—she had noticed a small error we made in an article from last year that mentioned her story. She wrote to ask us to correct it, and, of course, we immediately did. A couple of meaningful emails from her ensued.
Mechelle Vinson: A True Feminist Hero
Decades ago, Mechelle Vinson’s courage was inspiring—and, boy, do we ever need inspiration now—so it feels right to retell it. Her youth was a difficult one, she told me when I interviewed her 13 years ago. She was psychologically and physically abused by her father throughout her childhood. To escape, she got married at 15 to a man who promised to protect her, but who, instead, was also physically abusive. In 1974, at age 18 and separated from her husband, she became a teller at a Washington D.C., bank and thought she’d made a fresh start. She was wrong.
The bank’s manager, an ex-Army sergeant, took her to dinner one night and said, “If you don’t sleep with me, I’ll destroy you.” Thus began four years during which she was compelled to comply, hating it, but believing his threats. “I came to believe it was my fate to be abused,” she told me.
But by 1978, literally sick from the stress, Mechelle had had enough of life under men’s thumbs. With the help of attorney Patricia Barry, she sued her abuser and the bank for sexual harassment—something that was such a new concept that most local courts weren’t even sure how to define it. Eight long years later (justice can take time!), her suit made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the first time that body had ever considered sexual harassment. There, renowned feminist attorney Catharine MacKinnon argued on Mechelle’s behalf. On June 19, 1986, Mechelle was awakened by a call from an excited woman reporter: “You won! And it’s unanimous—9-0!”
The Supreme Court had not only made sexual harassment a federal crime, but it made clear that its definition included not only threats, but also a “hostile environment”: crude language jokes and pornography in the workplace. When Vinson relayed the message to Barry, the attorney erupted. “We did it!” she said. “We got that slime bucket and those son-of-a-guns!”
At the time I spoke to her almost a decade and a half ago, Mechelle Vinson told me, “I’m so grateful I was part of that change, but it’s just the beginning. We still have a lot to do, teaching our sons to respect women, and teaching our daughters: `Let no one treat you that way.'”
Ground to Make Up
Indeed, we do. The outrageous mockery made of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford by President Donald Trump is precisely the way women should not be treated. (His nasty, misogynist, unbelievably undignified statements and tweets about the physical appearance of women as diverse as Stormy Daniels just this week, and Carly Fiorina, Mika Brzezinski, and Heidi Cruz (wife of Texas Senator Ted Cruz) are further proof that we have much lost ground to make up. It is fair to say such remarks by the President of the United States would have been unbelievable in 1986.
At this time, I pray that we can move into a time of moral decencies, renewal of our democracy, and healing for our nation.
During and right after the Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh hearings, Mechelle Vinson wrote NextTribe, saying that witnessing the spectacle of the wall-to-wall media brought back harrowing moments of her time as the plaintiff in the landmark case, moments when she still, rightly, feared the man she’d accused. Shortly after hearing from her, we learned, of course, that Christine Blasey Ford was receiving so many death threats that she could not return home. We desperately hope she is safe.
Today, Mechelle Vinson wrote us another email, thanking us for the correction in our original article (an unnecessary act of graciousness, since we’d made the mistake), praising NextTribe’s work, and saying, “At this time, I pray that we can move into a time of moral decencies, renewal of our democracy, and healing for our nation. With God’s mighty power… a new beginning comes—and we can be sure that it will.”
“And we can be sure that it will”: We love that optimism and determination! It served us so well all those years ago when she was fighting for justice. We hope that it does again.
Thank you, Mechelle Vinson.