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, because equality is never dull.
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 professors seeking sex from undergraduates in the aftermath of its 1977 Report on the Status of Women to the Yale Corporation, which Olivarius directed and edited. Published just eight years after Yale first admitted women as undergraduates, the report’s critique of women’s status at Yale caused a campus-wide sensation.
Olivarius also drafted 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, Olivarius rallied the team to hold a press conference where each member removed her towel to reveal the the letters forming the words “WE NEED SUITS” painted on their backsides – possibly a source of inspiration for the Yale Women’s Crew when it did something similar two years later. This tongue-in-cheek protest gained attention and suits were rapidly provided. In the same period, Olivarius and others took on the well-known private club and restaurant Mory’s, which denied women membership – until campus feminists successfully campaigned to revoke its liquor license, forcing the members to conclude that a Mory’s with women was less apocalyptic than a Mory’s without alcohol.
After the Yale Police refused to do anything about a report of rape and strangulation in 1974 concerning Calvin Hirsch, who later became a doctor at UC Davis, Olivarius coined the term “date rape” and thereafter discussed it frequently on campus. The phase was widely taken up by other feminists, published by Susan Brownmiller and passed into everyday use.
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, Olivarius organized and became one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit Alexander v. Yale, which established for the first time that university inaction in the face of sexual harassment of students was illegal. This became a landmark case. The lawsuit was filed only because Yale refused to take action after Olivarius brought to senior administrators’ attention overwhelming evidence, collected for the Report on the Status of Women for the Yale Corporation, that several senior professors were regularly pressing undergraduate women to have sex. This was causing the women acute distress. Some became depressed, others changed their majors, some could not get into advanced programs without sleeping with the professor who was gatekeeper, some dropped out, others contemplated suicide. Yale had no procedures or central clearinghouse for complaints of this sort, so even flagrant repeat offenders faced no sanctions.
Instead of addressing the problem, Yale administrators defended the male professors, falsely told Olivarius she was going to be arrested for defamation as her parents arrived for graduation (that was nonsense, defamation is not a criminal offense) and smeared her reputation to reporters – calling her a lesbian (at the time considered by the Yale PR department an insult) who was flunking out (she graduated summa cum laude). Olivarius assembled the other plaintiffs and organized the case, which Simon and Harvey, the trial lawyers, MacKinnon, the legal scholar, and the plaintiffs including Olivarius took forward.
In 1992 Olivarius was given the Martha Miller Stewart award by the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund for her work on Alexander v. Yale, 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, YaleWomen, the organization of female Yale graduates, has announced it will be giving Olivarius a Lifetime Achievement Award.
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, at universities and during divorce get justice. She has represented victims of sexual harassment against major banks, hedge funds, companies, law firms and universities (including Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and University College London) in the US and UK, mostly resolved through private settlements. Publicly reported cases include the wrongful suspension of Professor Wendy Purcell, formerly vice-chancellor of Plymouth University; representing Nefertiti Takla and Kristen Glasgow against UCLA concerning the actions of Professor Gabriel Piterberg; Catherine Mayer against Time Magazine; Monica Morrison against the University of Miami; and a group of professors and students at the University of Rochester for a hostile work environment and retaliation concerning the behavior of Professor Florian Jaeger. Two of the plaintiffs in the University of Rochester case, Celeste Kidd and Jessica Cantlon, were named “Persons of the Year” by Time Magazine in its cover story on “Silence Breakers” in 2017. Also in 2017, the British academic journal Nature named Olivarius as one of “Nature’s 10” people who mattered in science because of her work fighting sexual harassment at universities.
Olivarius also advises pro bono the 1752 Group, an organization of academics who are organizing and campaigning to end sexual harassment in British higher education. She has also advised Cambridge University colleges about their sexual harassment procedures.
Another focus of her work is helping survivors of childhood sexual assault, often against religious institutions that have long protected sexual predators. In 2011 she joined with Jeff Anderson, the leading American practitioner in this area, to form AO Advocates in London, focusing on historic child sex abuse cases against churches, schools, care homes and other institutions. It now has more than 60 active cases. Her legal practice is also paying increasing attention to pornography, revenge and fake 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 hundreds of victims of revenge pornography, including YouTube star Chrissy Chambers. In 2017, Olivarius gave a TedX talk on this subject, “Revenge Porn: The Naked Truth.”
Politically, Olivarius has been a quiet pioneer. In 2015, she 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 Conservative and Labour parties have adopted many of its policies, which is success of a different sort. 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 many other members from Women Moving Millions and Professor Dines, Olivarius organized an educational program at the Adult Expo Convention in Las Vegas in January 2017 centered on porn eradication and harm reduction.
Olivarius advocates “gender lens” philanthropy and has been a board member of Women Moving Millions, a group whose members have each pledged $1 million to improve conditions for women and girls. She is now working on another new initiative to promote women’s philanthropy based in London, She:Impacts!
Since 2004, she has directed the Rhodes Project, a major study of the lives and career choices of more than a thousand female Rhodes Scholars, which has significance for understanding the obstacles facing all women, and the enduring gender gap between men and women in virtually all walks of life.
Olivarius advised Nelson Mandela on ways to abolish honor killings, child marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and female illiteracy. She also spoke to him about the value of establishing a group of senior world leaders to promote progressive values and peace, which saw fruition in “The Elders,” which Mandela founded in 2007. In 2003, he introduced Olivarius to a meeting of Rhodes Scholars in Cape Town as “a lawyer who has advised me well and who has courageously advanced the cause of justice, and improved life opportunities, for hundreds of millions of women, blacks and disadvantaged, worldwide.”
Olivarius has spoken about the importance of women and leadership at a symposium at the University of East London in 2017, at the University’s Centre of Excellence for Women's Entrepreneurship in 2013, and at the Women in the Bank Network at the Bank of England. She presented her work on porn and women’s rights at the Oxford Human Rights Hub and at an international conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, on “100 Years of Women’s Civil Rights.” In 2018, she addressed a conference on gender diversity in biomedical science at the Banbury Center science think-tank at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and also at the Annual Conference of the Associazione Donne e Scienza at the University of Pisa, Italy, on “#WeTooInScience: Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Institutions and Research Performing Organizations.” In early 2019, she will be part of the British delegation to the Futures Congress hosted by the Chilean Senate, where she will speak about expanding protections against sexual violence and harassment, cyberbullying, and fake news.