Alexander v Yale

In the era of #MeToo, it’s hard to remember that 40 years ago sexual harassment was almost unacknowledged. It was simply understood as a fact of life for women, not to be discussed or fought, only to be endured.  But in 1977, as an undergraduate at Yale, Dr. Ann Olivarius encountered an environment in which this problem stood out so clearly she tried to change it – and succeeded.  

As co-founder of the Yale Undergraduate Women’s Caucus, Ann drew attention to women’s unequal status on campus where they were newcomers, using creativity and humor to get the attention of a resistant administration. Her verve and work attracted the attention of the Yale Corporation, which commissioned Ann to chair a report on the status of women at the university to mark the tenth anniversary of their admission as undergraduates.  

The Report was wide-ranging and inventive. It included testimonies from dozens of students and faculty, some humorous, some deeply wrenching and serious, providing a comprehensive portrait of how women were faring in a place that had excluded them for 260 years and still prided itself on graduating, as the university president liked to say, “1,000 male leaders” each year. Under Ann’s editorship, the report was a deft combination of reporting, scholarship, and advocacy.

As she sought out material for the report, Ann heard numerous accounts of unwanted advances by professors, ranging from gropes, offers of higher grades for sex in hotel rooms,

threats to keep women out of advanced courses unless they succumbed, to “seductions” that were no more than violent rape.

So enormous was the distress from this abuse that some women changed their majors; others got depressed; some dropped out altogether; some contemplated suicide.  Yet it all happened in silence. It was the great unspoken secret of an Ivy League education. Yale had no policies to handle what we now call “sexual harassment,” then a term just being devised and tried out by feminist thinkers (including Ann).  Repeat offenders got away with their abuse because there was no centralized system for collecting reports of violations. Yale could feign ignorance of this problem hiding in plain sight. And since it went unacknowledged, women felt shame for what they thought was their own fault, not the product of a broader system of inequality. 

Ann followed up the Report by repeatedly requesting from high-ranking Yale officials that the university formulate a simple grievance procedure and a central repository for complaints about sexual harassment and violence. The administrators appeared sympathetic. They made promises, but then reneged. They also asked Ann for more details. She complied. This give-and-take repeated itself again and again.  Ann recognized that Yale was trying to run out the clock until she graduated.  Administrators thought she, not sexual harassment, was the problem they had to solve. 

In the end Yale defended the male professors.  The Secretary of the University, Sam Chauncey, told Ann she was about arrested for defamation just as her parents arrived for graduation. (That was both a lie and nonsense; defamation is not a criminal offense). 

Instead of giving up, Ann organized several undergraduates and one male professor to file a lawsuit against the University.  The lawsuit reflected the best kind of legal scholarship: identifying a place where the law’s protections might practically be expanded in a way others had not yet perceived.  Working with Catharine A. MacKinnon, now a renowned feminist theorist and law professor who was then a graduate student, and lawyers Anne Simon and Kent Harvey, Ann organized and became one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which is known as Alexander v. Yale. The case established for the first time that university inaction in the face of sexual harassment or assault of students was illegal.  Alexander v. Yale became a landmark case.  

Even though the only thing the plaintiffs wanted was a grievance procedure, Yale refused to settle and fought back hard.  The press office smeared Ann’s reputation to reporters, whispering that she was a lesbian (not intended as a compliment back then, also untrue) and was flunking out (she graduated summa cum laude and won a Rhodes Scholarship).  But after trial (in which most of the plaintiffs were struck out because they had already graduated, no longer the legal standard) and an appeal, Yale ultimately created a grievance system for handling sexual harassment complaints. In the years since, virtually every other institution of higher education in the United States, and now many in the UK and around the world, have done something similar. 

It is also noteworthy that Ann coined the now-common term “date rape” while she was at Yale. This phrase proved to be a simple, effective way of encapsulating a form of violence against women – now understood to be commonplace – that had previously been accepted in anguished silence by women as just the way life works.

Visual Portfolio, Posts & Image Gallery for WordPress
Visual Portfolio, Posts & Image Gallery for WordPress
Visual Portfolio, Posts & Image Gallery for WordPress

Most women knew only too well that rapists were not just strangers lurking in bushes. They were often boyfriends, classmates, friends, and acquaintances. Finding a way to talk about this unspoken violence – to think about it – required new language. Ann’s role in popularizing the phrase “date rape” was an important form of empowerment.  

The significance of Alexander v. Yale to both society and the law is now widely recognized. In 1992 Ann received the Martha Miller Stewart award from the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund for her work on the case. The American Civil Liberties Union in 2012 put Ann and her co-plaintiffs on its list of the people who have done the most to shape Title IX and achieve educational equality in the last 40 years. In 2019, when presenting Ann with the YaleWomen Lifetime Achievement Award, the Yale Alumni Association remarked:  

“From your undergraduate years until today, you have served as the forerunner in the effort to achieve equity for women. Your work is at the intersection of the courts and culture. It prepared the ground for changing the calculus of the structural power dynamic of society.  You have been a force to be reckoned with in exposing and calling for the dismantling of systems that contribute to inequity. Women around the world in the struggle for equity stand on your shoulders.” 

As awareness of sexual harassment and assault has become widespread – what they are, its prevalence, and the duty of organizations to protect their workers, students, and customers from it, ordinary people, as well as lawyers and campaigners, continue to benefit from Ann’s work.  

The significance of Alexander v. Yale, both socially and legally, is now widely recognized.  In 1992 Olivarius received the Martha Miller Stewart award from the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund for her work on the case, and in 2012, the lawsuit was considered so important that the American Civil Liberties Union put Olivarius and her co-plaintiffs on its list of the people who have done the most to shape Title IX and achieve educational equality in the last 40 years.  In 2019, presenting Olivarius with the YaleWomen Lifetime Achievement Award, the Yale Alumni Association remarked:

“From your undergraduate years until today, you have served as the forerunner in the effort to achieve equity for women.  Your work is at the intersection of the courts and culture.  It prepared the ground for changing the calculus of the structural power dynamic of society.  You have been a force to be reckoned with in exposing and calling for the dismantling of systems that contribute to inequity.  Women around the world in the struggle for equity stand on your shoulders.”

As awareness of sexual harassment – what it constitutes, its prevalence, and the duty of organizations to protect their workers and customers from it – has become widespread, lawyers, campaigners, and ordinary women who have suffered such conduct continue to benefit from Ann’s work.

For Ann’s Current Legal Work