Most Americans realize they owe a debt to Rosa Parks. With enormous personal courage and an inspiring commitment to justice, she helped change the legal and social landscape of our country. Although her bravery was initially self-serving—a demand that she, as an individual, be treated with dignity—the fruits of her labor have benefited every person, of every race, creed or color, who subscribes to the American dream of equality.
There is another woman, also African-American, but less well-known, to whom all equality-loving people owe much. Her name is Michelle Vinson, and she is a rape survivor. She fought for justice and dignity for herself and changed the world for all Americans, especially women.
A quarter of a century ago, Ms. Vinson was simply trying to make a living as a bank teller. Tragically, her supervisor exploited the power of his position and subjected her to abuse and harassment, and on a number of occasions, he raped her. As with most rape victims, Ms. Vinson did not trust the criminal justice system to provide her with justice, but she did think—perhaps because of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement—that civil law could provide her with some relief. And so, with assistance from civil attorneys and a newly developed legal theory which said sexual abuse in the workplace constituted unlawful sex discrimination, Ms. Vinson sued her employer.
Ms. Vinson did not have legal history or law on her side when she started her fight. But she believed that what was done to her was wrong, that it should be regarded as unlawful, and that she was entitled to justice and compensation. And in 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with her. When the Court issued its decision in Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank, the law in America was transformed from a place in which sexual abuse in the workplace could be regarded as the personal problem of its victims into illegal discrimination that courts, and employers, had obligations to prevent and to respond to with justice.
It took another five years, and another brave African-American woman—Anita Hill—before the American public really became aware that the law prohibits sexual abuse in the workplace. But since 1986, employers have become increasingly attentive to the legal rights of women workers. And rape and other forms of sexual abuse have become more unusual in the workplace. In fact, the transformation of the American workplace has been so profound that attitudes which flourished when Ms. Vinson was raped seem inconceivable now. It used to be common to regard a boss groping his secretary as a trivial matter, confirmation that sexual “relations” were the natural by-product of men and women working together, or evidence that the subordinate woman was using sex to get ahead. Nowadays, a boss groping his secretary is seen to be enacting sex discrimination, and he is frequently viewed as a liability, whose actions merit severe financial punishment.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, she was living in a culture where most people could not imagine that segregation would ever be regarded as a shameful vestige of slavery. Perhaps even she had trouble imagining a day when the legalized subordination of black Americans would be almost universally regarded as obscene. But somehow, whatever she foresaw, she found the courage to oppose an unjust act committed against her. In refusing to move to the back of the bus, she engaged in one act of civil legal disobedience, and galvanized a whole movement of people, which transformed our country for the better.
Today, thanks in large part to Ms. Vinson, the workplace is much safer for women. But sexual assault outside of the workplace occurs with a frequency that is astonishing and offensive. According to the United States Department of Justice, more than one in 10 American women are raped. And most rape victims never report being raped to the criminal justice system, believing (rightly, I think) that rape is almost never taken seriously or dealt with effectively. These facts suggest that our culture regards rape as inevitable, or that we have a social inability to imagine a world in which men are reliably—not rarely—held accountable for sexually violating others.
Whether or not someone like Rosa Parks or Michelle Vinson leads the way, we must re-imagine and re-shape our society into a place where rape is not regarded as inevitable any more than it is tolerated or left un-remedied. In Illinois, a new law can help us do this. Under the Illinois Gender Violence Act, sexual violation is unlawful sex discrimination, and survivors can sue their rapists in civil court—whether or not the criminal justice system ever charged or prosecuted the assault. In the hands of survivors, this is a tool that can make an individual difference, with potentially global implications.
I have difficulty imagining what the world will feel like when rape becomes a truly rare event, rather than a common occurrence. But as a student of the Civil Rights movement, an admirer of Michelle Vinson, and an attorney devoted to representing survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, I have no difficulty imagining what it will take to make that happen. It will take civil lawsuits which prove that rapists can be taken to task for what they’ve done. And those lawsuits will be brought by ordinary women (or girls, or boys or men perhaps) who take a stand for themselves, and in refusing to tolerate their own sexual violation, improve our collective ability to prevent, respond to, and ultimately eradicate, sexual violation.
Kaethe Morris Hoffer is the founder of K. Morris Hoffer, P.C., a law firm devoted to legal and political advocacy for survivors of sexual assault and other forms of sex discrimination. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
“With Gratitude to Ms. Parks and Ms. Vinson, and the Fighters Yet to Come…” was first published in Coalition Commentary, a publication of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.