For five extremely trying centuries, sexists have libeled feminists – meaning women who dare to fight for their own rights – as sexless, humorless, man-haters. But these lies couldn’t be farther from the truth:
Feminism is fun, and the tragic joke is on the patriarchy.
From her early days as a feminist campus activist in the 1970s to the pioneering legal work she does today, Dr. Ann Olivarius has spent four decades joyfully, doggedly, and profitably fighting in the feminist trenches. Through study, work, protest, and mind-expanding relationships with courageous feminist thinkers, Olivarius has learned women need to have three things on their side to achieve full equality: the law, money, and laughter.
Starting at Yale, Olivarius co-founded the Yale Undergraduate Women’s Caucus, which became the first campus feminist group to protest widespread student-on-student rape in its 1977 Report to the Yale Corporation, which Olivarius directed and edited. Published just eight years after Yale first admitted women as undergraduates, the report’s blistering critique of women’s status at Yale caused a campus-wide sensation. Olivarius did not mute the controversy when Yale’s President Kingman Brewster and members of the Yale Corporation asked her to deliver the report’s findings in person and she used the term “date rape” to describe the pervasiveness of campus sexual assault. In the ensuing years, the phrase captured newspapers’ imagination and today “date rape” is a familiar term.
Olivarius also wrote the Freshwomen’s Booklet – a resource guide that told new women students how to evaluate their doctor, get an abortion, retain a lawyer, handle landlords and deal with the cosmic burden of feminist activism: To incoming freshwomen who worried about the difficulties of attending a heavily male institution, the Freshwomen’s Booklet offered this cheerful bromide: “Need advice? What to do when you’re going to hell.”
A sense of humor was likewise useful for Olivarius and her teammates on the women’s swim team when Yale’s athletic department refused to provide them with equal access to facilities or funding – not even team swimsuits. In response, the team held a press conference where each member removed her towel to reveal the words “TITLE IX… NEED SUITS” scrawled on their backsides. Their tongue-in-cheek protest gained attention and suits were rapidly provided. At the same time, Olivarius took on the well-known private club and restaurant Mory’s, which denied women membership – until campus feminists successfully campaigned for the revocation of its liquor license, forcing Mory’s to admit that a Mory’s with women was less apocalyptic than a Mory’s without alcohol.
Working with Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon and lawyer Anne Simon, by the time she graduated, Olivarius had helped alter the course of American legal history as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit Alexander v. Yale, which established that university inaction in the face of pervasive sexual harassment of students was illegal under Title IX. In 1992 she was given the Martha Miller Stewart award by the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund for her work on this case, and in 2012, the lawsuit was considered so important that the American Civil Liberties Union singled out 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.
Today, Olivarius remains on the feminist front lines as a crusading lawyer. Her legal practice largely focuses on ensuring that those who are treated unequally at work and at universities get justice. She also brings cases on behalf of childhood victims of sexual assault, often against religious institutions that have long protected sexual predators. Her legal practice is also paying increasing attention to pornography, revenge porn, and the ways that new digital technologies undermine women’s rights, health and safety. Olivarius was instrumental in lobbying Parliament to pass the criminal law against non-consensual pornography in the UK in April 2015 and has represented several victims of revenge pornography, including Youtube star Chrissy Chambers.
Politically, Olivarius has been a quiet pioneer. In 2015, Olivarius provided early, crucial support to the founding of the Women’s Equality Party, the first British political party to adopt an explicitly feminist platform. In the London 2016 mayoral elections, the party received one vote for every 22 votes cast, an impressive feat considering the party’s youth. The Women’s Equality Party shares Olivarius’ commitment to lobbying for the Nordic Model of legislation on prostitution, which criminalizes the purchase of sex but, crucially, not its sale.
In the US, Olivarius works with Professor Gail Dines on Culture Reframed, a health education organization that tackles one of today’s greatest public health crises: pornography. Culture Reframed educates parents and teachers on how to protect children and youth from commercial sexual violence. Olivarius successfully argued before the Cambridge Union that “Pornography Is Inherently Oppressive,” in a speech available here. Olivarius’ activism is informed by her personal experience of representing victims of the porn industry, seeing for herself the damage they have suffered: “This is not an industry in which performers can grow old, have a pension, guaranteed holidays, or job security. It is one where women are abused for the sexual gratification of viewers. The oppression of women is inherent to the stories it conveys.”
Along with dozens of other members from Women Moving Millions and Professor Gail Dines, Olivarius is organizing an educational program at the Adult Expo Convention in Las Vegas in January 2017 centered on porn eradication and harm reduction.
Olivarius is a member of the 30% Club, a UK-based organization that works to increase the gender balance on corporate boards. She has been a board member of Women Moving Millions, and has worked on another new initiative to promote women’s philanthropy, She:Impacts! She is advisor to the newly formed 1752 Group, an organization dedicated to ending sexual exploitation in higher education.