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A Tribute to Diane R. Williams: A Trailblazer Who Paved a Legal Path for the #MeToo Movement

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Two years ago, my friend Diane passed away. At the age of 68, she lost her courageous battle with cancer. While her absence, still sorely pains many who knew her, the amazing African-American woman left a remarkable legacy. For she blazed an indelible legal path for silence-breakers in the #MeToo movement complaining of workplace sexual harassment.

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I met Diane in the late '90s at an NAACP gathering. By then, the Howard University graduate, held a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University Law School; and she held a job as an Equal Employment Opportunity attorney for the federal government. Over the years, we would connect at a rally, a civic meeting, a congressional hearing or something of that kind. We united on causes, like supporting the Notification and Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002, a law to curb rampant racism, sexism and other "isms" fostering unfairness in the federal sector. In 2008, Diane joined me in volunteering for the Coalition For Change, Inc. (C4C). For eight years, this Washingtonian woman, with a mentoring heart and judicious mind, furthered C4C's primary mission of lending support to civil servants harmed by abusive federal officials. Tirelessly, she served as C4C's Legislative Chair without ever mentioning the scars she sustained after suffering injustice while a member of the United States labor force.

One evening, a year after her passing in 2016, I ran across a Facebook post written by Diane's son, Kyle. It read: "The Silence Breakers were named Time Magazines Person of the Year. I want to give credit to my mother, the real silence breaker, Diane Williams. She was a trailblazer in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace." A 1976 Jet Magazine article accompanied the memorial salute. The article showed a picture of a radiant Diane under the headline: "Sex Harassment Ruled In Firing of D.C. Woman."

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Filled with both admiration and amazement, my eyes scanned the editorial, line by line. I mused: Oh, how my departed friend, a woman who had a rich reason to boast, never did! Prompted to learn more, I began searching the Internet. I soon discovered in 1972, the year I studied in grade school, Diane worked as a Communication Specialist for the Department of Justice. She entered the work force in January of that year. However, she served only eight months. By September 1972, the Justice Department fired her after she refused to sleep with her supervisor. Ironically, her supervisor's first name sounded the same as the Hollywood film producer, "Harvey" Weinstein. Like Weinstein, Diane's boss, "Harvey" Brinson," loomed at the center of a sexual harassment claim. Much like Harvey Weinstein, Harvey Brinson wheeled a powerful presence. However, this "Harvey," reigned as the Director of Community Relations within the Nation's premier law enforcement agency.

Still rather than shrink away quietly, Diane, at 23 years-old, broke from the silence of the '70s. She confronted her formidable harasser. She ignored the workplace notion -- "boys will be boys." She spoke up before the #MeToo movement, at a time when sexual harassment was seemingly a normal condition of employment for women in the workplace. As required of federal employees, Diane first filed her claim in-house with the employer who fired her. Predictably, the Justice Department - the named defendant - failed to find that it had discriminated. Therefore, Diane launched a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In turn, the government motioned the court to dismiss her case. During court proceedings, the Justice Department stated plaintiff Diane R. Williams did not have a legal standing under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Act) to bring a "sexual harassment claim" into court. (The Act bars employers from discriminating against workers on such basis as race, color, or sex.)

Despite the government's relentless maneuvers to end the lawsuit, armed with legal representation, Diane successfully argued her case. She argued the harassing conduct she complained of fell within the definitional parameters of "sex" discrimination under the law. Resultantly, she won her case known as Williams v Saxbe [Civil Action No. 74-186 ]. In winning, Diane became the first person in America to take a sexual harassment into a U.S. District Court and to obtain a ruling that sexual harassment forms sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. Before Diane took her case into court and won in 1976, judges held a narrow view of "sex" within the bounds of the law. They had ruled that the law only protected a woman from sexual discrimination in mostly outward forms, like when a supervisor denies a woman a promotion because of her "gender." But, following Diane's landmark victory in Williams v Saxbe(D.D.C. 1976); other courts began recognizing that "quid pro quo" sexual harassment forms sex discrimination under the Act. Notably, prominent cases like Barnes v Castle (D.C Circuit, 1977), Bundy v. Jackson (D.C Circuit, 1981), and the Supreme Court case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (477 U.S. 57, 1986) all found that workplace quid pro quo sexual harassment violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [Quid Pro Quo "something for something" harassment occurs when an employer requires an employee to submit to unwelcome sexual conduct as a condition of employment.]

Now, some forty-two years later, Diane R. Williams' pioneering opposition to sexual harassment in the workplace helps victims of sexual harassment. She paved a legal path for women who choose to file such harassment suits against their bosses. To recognize her historic achievement, the whistleblower community honored Diane R. Williams posthumously with a Pillar Award during the 2018 Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights. Event organizers presented the "Civil Rights Champion" award to Diane's beloved son, Kyle, who in a Facebook post shined the light on his mother's monumental victory benefitting the #MeToo movement.

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Tanya Ward Jordan is the author of 17 STEPS: A Federal Employee's Guide For Tackling Workplace Discrimination. She serves as President and Founder of the Coalition For Change, Inc. (C4C). C4C is an proactive non-profit self-help organization (more...)

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