In the past week, it’s come to light that Fox News paid out millions of dollars to settle several sexual harassment lawsuits against Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor. If you’re shocked, or even shocked Captain-Renault-style, you might be looking for some historical context to help you understand this situation.
There are lots of ways to do this. We could talk about how the idea of a sex-segregated work world isn’t some eternal historical idea. We could talk about the sexual violence visited upon enslaved women in the “workplace.” We could talk about what happens to the status and pay of occupations when they become “feminized.” We could talk about how domestic workers, in a low-paying occupation historically dominated by non-white women, have long faced dangers of harassment and assault in workplaces hidden from public view. We could talk about how women have struggled to have their concerns about harassment taken seriously by male union leaders, and have formed their own unions as a result.*
But we don’t actually need to. We don’t need to look very far back to find the context for what’s happening. The context is Bill O’Reilly himself.
It’s O’Reilly screaming at others in his workplace decades ago.
It’s O’Reilly defending himself against sexual harassment allegations while promoting his children’s book on Live! With Regis & Kelly in 2004. Thirteen years ago. I remember watching this as it happened. The allegations had just broken that morning, and the co-hosts opened the show by talking about how they couldn’t avoid this but also weren’t really prepared for dealing with it.
We don’t need anything more than O’Reilly himself and all of these public stories about him because the question we need to consider isn’t: “Why is Bill O’Reilly a creep to women?” We don’t really need to explain him.
Instead, we should be considering questions like: “Why are we pretending this is news? Why are we pretending to be shocked by something that’s been public for years? Why did we only take these accusations seriously when it was revealed that the male network heads had paid out? Why do we only believe women’s claims of sexual harassment when men validate them or admit to them?”
History gives us context, but people also like to use it to hold the past and its ideas at arm’s length, dismissing current injustice by saying “things aren’t that bad anymore.” In this case, examining what harassment looked like for mill girls in Lowell in 1837 might be interesting, but I don’t think it helps.
If you’re an adult wondering (or pretending to wonder) how this could possibly happen, you don’t need to look to “the old days” for context. You’re not outside this. You’re not an observer. You are a historical actor. You don’t need history to explain how this could happen. You need a mirror to reflect on how you participate in the culture where this happens all the time.
*If you do want to read about this last issue, I’d start with the seminal, incredibly readable article “‘A Spontaneous Loss of Enthusiasm’: Workplace Feminism and the Transformation of Women’s Service Jobs in the 1970s” by Dorothy Sue Cobble, International Labor and Working-Class History No. 56, Fall 1999, pp. 23-44.