When I arrived at Yale as an undergraduate in 1973, I felt ostracized by the values and mannerisms that ruled campus, ones which warmly welcomed those who looked like Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 more than those who looked like me. Coming from a working-class family, I was unaccustomed to the private schools, boundless checking accounts and the sense of entitlement in which many of my new classmates luxuriated. On breaks, they sailed and skied; I worked to pay tuition. They seemed to belong at Yale, as did Kavanaugh. I was made, through innumerable slights now called microaggressions, to feel foreign.
The other reason I felt different was because I was a woman, which for many, was still an alien presence. For several years after the arrival of the first coeds, as we were called, the Freshman Handbook still included this advice: “Treat Yale as you would a good woman; take advantage of her many gifts, nourish yourself with the fruit of her wisdom, curse her if you will, but congratulate yourself in your possession of her.” Most Yale men, as The New York Times reported in 1971, “couldn’t quite understand why the women objected.”
While Kavanaugh was still attending wild parties at Georgetown Prep, I founded the Women’s Caucus at Yale in 1974. Soon after, the Yale Corporation asked me to oversee a report for the 10th anniversary of the admission of women to the College. We conducted a survey and heard again and again of professors who offered female students high grades or coveted seats in upper-level courses in exchange for sex — putting many women in a terrible bind of fearing (and often receiving) retribution if they refused.
Sexual violence and harassment were a constant, near-invisible undercurrent on campus. Eventually, they finally prompted me and a few other young women to use a newly passed piece of federal legislation called Title IX to sue Yale over its lack of a mechanism for sexual harassment complaints. While every college in the country had a code of conduct that forbade cheating, it seemed that professors unfastening their trousers wasn’t an issue. For that reason, we filed a case that became known as Alexander v. Yale. This was not a universally popular move — I was stalked by a Yale professor, and University officials threatened me with arrest. In the mail, I received death threats, defaced photos of naked women and human excrement.
But in the end, the judge recognized the merit of our argument, deciding that a university that didn’t have a system for dealing with sexual harassment hurt educational opportunities for women. As such, it was considered illegal discrimination. After the ruling, colleges across the nation, including Yale, began to implement rules against sexual harassment as well as judicial procedures to bring perpetrators to account.
After both the #MeToo movement and Kavanaugh hearings, however, it has become clear that Alexander v. Yale was only an early skirmish in a very long war. Women who speak out about harassment are still subjected to mockery, denials and blaming. It is true that Bill Cosby now sits in prison. It is also true that seemingly untouchable men like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Roger Ailes and many others have been disgraced. Yet President Donald Trump was elected despite boasting of sexually assaulting women. He, alongside many Republican senators, expressed outrage that Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination could be held back by Dr. Blasey Ford’s account of sexual assault. In my opinion, she could not have been more credible as a witness. In contrast, Kavanaugh’s responses to probing questions were to deny, filibuster and attack. He fundamentally disrespected the Senate’s responsibility to advise and consent, evading questions and telling a series of fibs in a way that he would never permit in his own courtroom. Yet even so, most senators seemed content to take his word at face value. There is still a very, very long way to go.
Forty years ago, we fought the first battle. As college students, we argued that the law needed to establish a minimum standard of institutional behavior — to ensure that universities acknowledged the particular problems faced by female students who by definition are less powerful than their professors and often physically less powerful than their male classmates. But laws are only the beginning. It is when the law comes off the page and is internalized in codes of behavior and social norms that it truly counts. Many women empathize with Dr. Blasey Ford’s story because they recognize it as a version of something that they have experienced themselves — uncomfortable stories of men, drunken or otherwise, who approached them after class, at a party or in a dorm room. I hope that at least one positive consequence of the Kavanaugh confirmation will be the conversations that it sparks about the importance of consent, how alcohol cannot excuse assault and how to treat women as proper equals. These are not complicated matters — yet it is evident they must be relearned by every generation.
Ann Olivarius ’77, LAW ’86 SOM ’86, is the founder of the law firm McAllister Olivarius, which specializes in fighting sex discrimination in employment and universities. The ACLU named her as one of the 40 most important people in the history of Title IX, the federal law requiring equal opportunities for women at universities, and Nelson Mandela described her as “a lawyer who has advised me well and who has courageously advanced the cause of justice, and improved life opportunities, for hundreds of millions of women, blacks and disadvantaged, worldwide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .