A history of fear

Photo by Frances B. Johnson

Amid the racket of machinery and the toiling of a hundred workers, predators walked the halls of America’s first factories. Men in positions of power sexually abused women who were a growing workforce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Besides the obvious dangers of these factories, including deadly contraptions that could snatch fingers or more and flammable warehouses sans fire escapes, working women faced mistreatment from foremen, bosses, and even co-workers.

A 1978 article, “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace,” written by Mary Bularzik and published in “Radical America” magazine documents detailed historical accounts of rape and other abuses.

“I felt what that glance in his eyes meant. It was quiet in the shop, everybody had left, even the foreman. There in the office, I sat on a chair, the boss stood near me with my pay in his hand, speaking to me in a velvety, soft voice. Alas! Nobody around. I sat trembling with fear.” — Elizabeth Hasanovitch quoted in “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace” by Mary Bularzik

Photo by Frances B. Johnson

“Floor-walkers in the old days were veritable tsars; they often ruled with a rod of iron. Only the girls who were free-and-easy’ with them, who consented to lunch or dine with them, who permitted certain liberties, were allowed any freedom of action or felt secure in their positions,” — Maud Nathan quoted in “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace” by Mary Bularzik.

Factories weren’t the only dangerous place for women, though. By the early 20th century, men hired women for secretarial and stenographer positions.

An anonymous working woman wrote in a 1908 edition of Harper’s Magazine that she answered a doctor’s ad for a stenographer, which promised “good wages paid.”

At first, the woman said the doctor was pleasant, but as she was leaving she said he propositioned her to travel with him on “pleasure trips.”

“That settled the doctor; I never appeared,” she wrote. “After that experience, I was ill for two weeks; a result of my hard work, suffering and discouragement.”

After harassing women or raping them, men in workplaces threatened to fire them, blackmail them, or worse, Bularzik wrote.

Washington Navy Yard, 1943

One of the biggest barriers women faced after they were harassed by men was shame, Bularzik wrote.

Women sought justice in male-dominated courtrooms and were often unsuccessful.

Women like Hasanovitch were desperate for justice but frustrated by their lack of power and the threats by men looming over them.

“If I could only discredit that man so that he would never dare to insult a working-girl again! If only I could complain of him in court! But I had no witnesses to testify the truth.” — Elizabeth Hasanovitch quoted in “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace” by Mary Bularzik

Bularzik writes that some women decided their only course of action was to organize.

As workers’ unions began forming, women tried to take the opportunity to improve their own conditions.

But labor unions at the time were veritable men’s clubs wrote Mary Anderson, who later became head of the U.S Women’s Bureau.

“The men met in halls that were often in back of a saloon, or in questionable districts, dirty and not well kept. I remember the so-called labor temples that were anything but temples. The girls would not go to meetings in these places and we could not ask them to go under the circumstances,” wrote Anderson quoted in “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace” by Mary Bularzik

Another issue with labor organization, Bularzik said, was that not only bosses and foremen but also male co-workers abused and sexually harassed women.

“Sexual harassment is a phenomenon that crosses class lines, though it does have a class dimension. It cannot be reduced to bosses exploiting workers, because the problem of harassment by co-workers is so extensive.” Bularzik said in the article “Sexual Harassment at the Workplace.”

In the end, Bularzik concludes that to understand sexual harassment in American workplaces “we must analyze both the organization of capitalism and the organization of male dominance.”



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store