[Cross-posted from New Books in Gender Studies] How to research the history of sexual harassment in the office, when the term sexual harassment was only invented in 1975 and it was long tabou to even use the word sex in conversation? Using an array of rich sources — from Treasury Department archives to trial records, congressional investigation files to films and novels, popular weeklies and dailies to postcards, advertisements to confession magazines, private papers to employment advice guides – Julie Berebitsky takes the reader on a discovery of sexuality in the white collar-office from the Civil War to the present day.
Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power and Desire (Yale University Press, 2012) analyzes sexual relations, non-consensual and consensual, among co-workers, arguing that the 19th-century ideal of the passionless woman gave way by World War One to an ideal of feminine attractiveness, one that was later transformed by Helen Gurley Brown in the 1960s into a professional strategy for its time. At the same time, feminist groups and the secretarial labor movement coalesced to fight back against decades of discrimination and sexual violence in the office against women workers. Berebitsky concludes her book with an analysis of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case, which brought the issue of sexual harassment into the living rooms of Americans. This case, and the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton affair, demonstrate that there is both continuity and change in American attitudes towards sex at the office.