The following contains spoilers from Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men.
The big reveal in Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men was that Sterling Cooper, a company where racist jokes are frequently thrown about and where the company’s only female partner literally earned that partnership because she was prostituted out to a client, is actually a progressive employer by the standards of its era. The episode is the first after Sterling Cooper is absorbed into the advertising behemoth McCann Erickson, and it begins with an African American secretary telling her casually racist boss that she won’t be going over to McCann with him because “advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.”
Yet the highlight of the episode is Joan’s sexual harassment at the hands of a senior member of her new firm, and her eventual decision to take a buyout worth only half of her partnership stake in the now defunct Sterling Cooper rather than take McCann to court. (Joan, of course, is the partner who agreed to an indecent proposal from a client).
In response to Joan’s fictional experience with sex discrimination, the real-life American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged Joan to contact them in a tweet announcing that “sexual harassment has no place at work!” Yet the sad truth is that, had Joan actually pursued a lawsuit against McCann in 1970, the year when the final half-season of Mad Men takes place, she would have almost certainly lost.
Sunday’s episode focuses on Joan’s increasingly terrible interactions with three male colleagues. Early in the episode, Joan is matched with Dennis, an account executive who botches a call with a client and then dismisses Joan’s feedback (“Who told you you got to get pissed off!”) when she calls him out on his incompetence. Fearful that Dennis will destroy the client relationships that are her only capital within the firm, she approaches Ferg, a more senior colleague, seeking help.
Though Ferg initially presents himself as a lifesaver — he takes Dennis off Joan’s business and promises that she will report directly to him — he soon makes it clear that his real interest in Joan is sexual. Ferg suggests that the two of them travel together to Atlanta to meet the client Dennis upset and tell her that he’s “not expecting anything more than a good time.” Once Joan goes over Ferg’s head, she’s informed that Ferg is a high-status player at McCann and that she needs to fall in line. At first, Joan threatens to bring in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Betty Friedan and the ACLU to press her sexual harassment claim, but she ultimately takes what amounts to a settlement offer consisting of only half of what McCann owes her for her stake in Sterling Cooper.
Had Joan sued McCann, she would have relied on a legal theory that wasn’t even in its infancy in 1970. The ban on sexual harassment in the workplace flows from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employment discrimination because of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Six years after the law’s passage, however, the courts had only barely begun to grapple with how sex discrimination actually manifests in the workplace, and the term “sexual harassment” didn’t even exist yet.
According to the National Organization for Women, “Cornell University activists coined the term sexual harassment in 1975,” five years after Joan’s fictional harassment took place. The first successful sexual harassment suit was decided in 1976, and that was only the decision of a single federal district judge. The EEOC did not issue guidelines targeting sexual harassment as a kind of sex discrimination until 1980. And the Supreme Court did not recognize Title VII’s prohibition on sexual harassment until its 1986 decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.
Had Joan filed suit against McCann, her lawsuit would have preceded all of these legal developments. For that reason, despite her threat to get the ACLU involved, it is unlikely that top-notch civil rights lawyers would have wanted to use her case as the vehicle to try to blaze a new legal trail. When lawyers bring a “test case” seeking to create new law, they typically choose their plaintiff or plaintiffs very carefully, selecting someone with an especially compelling case who is likely to win the sympathy of judges or justices. Bad facts make bad law, and a lawyer who offers a novel legal theory on behalf of a client who experienced subtle or uncertain harassment is likely to not only lose their case, they are likely to create a bad precedent that will harm future plaintiffs.
Here, for example, are the allegations in Vinson, the first Supreme Court case to recognize that sexual harassment suits are viable:
Respondent testified that during her probationary period as a teller-trainee, Taylor treated her in a fatherly way and made no sexual advances. Shortly thereafter, however, he invited her out to dinner and, during the course of the meal, suggested that they go to a motel to have sexual relations. At first she refused, but out of what she described as fear of losing her job she eventually agreed. According to respondent, Taylor thereafter made repeated demands upon her for sexual favors, usually at the branch, both during and after business hours; she estimated that over the next several years she had intercourse with him some 40 or 50 times. In addition, respondent testified that Taylor fondled her in front of other employees, followed her into the women’s restroom when she went there alone, exposed himself to her, and even forcibly raped her on several occasions.
Though Vinson recognized that this egregious level of harassment-becoming-assault violates the law, it set a very high bar for future sexual harassment plaintiffs. “For sexual harassment to be actionable,” Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the Court, “it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive ‘to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.’” The Court also cited favorably to a racial harassment case establishing that the “’mere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings in an employee’ would not affect the conditions of employment to sufficiently significant degree to violate Title VII.”
Ferg’s advances, though clearly inappropriate, did not even approach the egregious level of discrimination that allegedly occurred in Vinson. He began his conversation with Joan by excusing Dennis’s sexism, but ultimately promised to give Joan the professional “respect you desire.” And he propositioned Joan more through innuendo than through the direct demands that allegedly occurred in Vinson. There’s little doubt what kind of “good time” Ferg was looking for, but it would be difficult for Joan to prove that this one incident constituted the kind of “severe or pervasive” harassment Vinson demands.
That’s not to dismiss the reality of Ferg’s harassment of Joan, or to suggest that the working conditions that she faced were anything less than disgusting. But sexual harassment claims are notoriously difficult to win, and even our modern, more developed sexual harassment law is inadequate to combat the kind of harassment women like Joan continue to face in the workplace.
Had Joan filed suit against McCann, she would have been a true pioneer, bringing a novel legal case years before the term “sexual harassment” even existed. She also would have almost certainly lost her case in a legal system that was not the least bit prepared to hear it.