Close Mobile Menu

She Was A Victims’ Advocate Long Before #MeToo

July 16, 2020
by Laura Smith

How Alumna of the Year Freada Kapor Klein changed the conversation around sexual assault

ON SUNDAY MORNINGS IN THE EARLY ’70s, Freada Kapor Klein could be found sitting on her living room floor talking on the phone to strangers.  

She was an undergraduate at Berkeley and a trained peer counselor for Bay Area Women Against Rape, one of the country’s first rape crisis call centers. On those Sunday mornings, as she fielded calls from survivors, she noticed a common thread. “I don’t know what happened,” the women on the other end of the line would say. The night before they had been on a date with a man they knew. “You know, it wasn’t a stranger leaping from the bushes. But is this rape?” 

Today we have a term for this: date rape. But back then, the idea that you could be raped by an acquaintance was inconceivable. As Kapor Klein explained, there was a societywide tendency to blame the victim. “Back then, everybody thought it was about sexual desire and women wearing short skirts.” If your date had assaulted you, surely you had done something to lead them on. Bay Area Women Against Rape was working with a young district attorney in Alameda County, who, though he was personally sympathetic, told them, “I’m not going to take any rape case where it isn’t a nun stabbed 97 times. I can’t get any other case through a jury.”

Decades before the #MeToo movement, Freada Kapor Klein spearheaded sexual assault support groups and advocacy. // Photo by Jason Henry


In lieu of legal justice, Bay Area Women Against Rape offered support groups, and if the rape was committed by a boyfriend or ex-boyfriend, they could help the victims file restraining orders. It was what the second-wave feminist movement termed “women helping women.” And the “women helping women” model was great, but Kapor Klein had culturewide ambitions in mind that would “challenge the institution,” one might say the patriarchy itself. 

More than four decades before #MeToo, Kapor Klein ’74, Berkeley’s 2020 Alumna of the Year (presented by the UC Berkeley Foundation and the Cal Alumni Association), was at the forefront of a burgeoning feminist movement as a researcher, an activist, and a formidable advocate for women’s rights, uncovering the trauma occurring in American homes and workplaces before we had words and hashtags to explain them. “Date rape, marital rape, sexual harassment, none of those terms existed when I was an undergraduate at Cal,” she said. Over the next 40 years, Kapor Klein would bring this ethos of fairness to the highest echelons of tech and business, sectors that have been slow to adopt diversity and gender equality. The work earned her acclaim from the likes of former Vice President Al Gore and former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who called her “the moral center of Silicon Valley and an O.G. in technology.”  

Kapor Klein is an energetic talker with a warm face crowned by tight black curls. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and mostly raised in the San Fernando Valley, the daughter of a doctor father and a Jewish mother with Russian heritage whose parents had lost most of their family in the pogroms. As Freada’s husband recalled, she “has been an activist her whole life.” In middle school, she used to cut classes to march in support of Cesar Chavez and farm workers. She applied to college as the Vietnam War, the second wave of the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement were in full swing, and she chose Cal based on the strength of the school’s activism. She quickly settled on criminology as her major because the School of Criminology was a bastion of racial and social justice, so much so that the chancellor at the time, Albert Bowker, declared it Marxist before shutting it down completely. Bowker wasn’t wrong. “It was very left leaning,” Kapor Klein agreed. 

After graduating in 1974, Kapor Klein headed to Washington, D.C., and immediately connected with a rape crisis center there. One of her early calls came from a woman who had been raped by a congressman. One of her responsibilities at the call center was to help the victims file police reports. While on the phone with a Capitol Police officer, describing what had happened to this woman, the officer interrupted her. “Lady, if I file this report, I’m going to lose my job,” Kapor Klein recalled him saying. “That’s how explicit it was,” she said. “It was part of the culture and it was seen as the same bad luck if you got a boss like that or you happen to marry a guy who beat you. It was really seen as individual bad luck. Nothing for society to do about it.” 

With nowhere to turn, the congressional staffer’s only option was to quit her job and join a support group. But the woman’s story highlighted another form of rape for Kapor Klein, the kind that happened in workplaces, and this form was particularly pernicious because it resulted not just in trauma, but the loss of income and career advancement. With the group Feminist Alliance Against Rape, Kapor Klein decided to explore the issue further, to understand it on a national scale by surveying rape crisis centers across the country. The survey asked if they were getting any calls like the one from the congressional staffer. “Get this,” Kapor Klein said, “here’s the term we used: employment-related sexual assault.” Sure enough, every one of the 200-plus rape crisis centers reported receiving similar calls. “It was women making the connection,” Kapor Klein said. 

The loan officer looked at her and asked, “Where were you when I needed you?” Now Kapor Klein saw that survivors were hiding in plain sight and could be anyone: your banker or your grocery store cashier, your kid’s pediatrician, or your neighbor.

Kapor Klein knew there was something larger going on than individual cases—it was a cultural problem. “I thought, OK, I can spend the rest of my life as a volunteer or a paid staff person at a rape crisis center, helping pull individual women out of the wringer, or I can put some effort into trying to figure out why men rape and get them to stop.” She decided to go to the source of the problem: convicted rapists.

In the early ’80s, she started working with incarcerated men at Lorton Prison outside of Washington, D.C., facilitating a support group called Prisoners Against Rape. Footage from those meetings appears in the 1983 documentary Rape Culture. Kapor Klein is shown seated in a circle, hands in lap, surrounded by a dozen men as they discuss women, rape, race, and their own sexual abuse in prison. “It wasn’t the sex,” one man explained. “I wanted to dominate this woman.”

The more research she did, and the more people she spoke to, the more she realized the problem of discrimination and harassment was a many-headed hydra. “This is where my Berkeley training and understanding of theory and real emphasis on thinking critically all pulled together.” 

Her research eventually took her to Brandeis University for her Ph.D. There she had an encounter that illustrated the intersection of the two main strands of her career: discrimination and abuse. She was trying to buy a house with two other female friends when the female loan officer explained that she couldn’t grant the loan because there were only two lines on the mortgage application—husband and wife. “I asked her if she had a ruler because I could put a third one,” Kapor Klein said. She told the woman, “This is the safest mortgage this bank is ever going to do because you have three incomes to go after—you got three working women and not one guy.” 

Still skeptical, the loan officer asked the women what they did for a living. Kapor Klein explained that, at age 26, she was the executive director of Help for Abused Women and their Children, an organization that served 23 cities and towns, and that she had a district attorney reporting to her. And then the meeting took an unexpected turn: The loan officer looked at her and asked, “Where were you when I needed you?” Kapor Klein was stunned, the loan officer upended all of the mythologies surrounding battered women: that they didn’t work in offices, that you would know a battered woman when you saw one. Now Kapor Klein saw that they were hiding in plain sight and could be anyone: your banker or your grocery store cashier, your kid’s pediatrician, or your neighbor. 

The women got the house, but the encounter made Kapor Klein think. “It was so apparent to me that these were all the same issue, whether it was rape or domestic violence or sexual harassment, at its core, and that that’s what we needed to figure out … for somebody to believe that sex with an unwilling partner is OK, or beating up a spouse because they burned the eggs … Or believe that it’s OK to say, ‘sleep with me or you lose your job.’ It’s the same dynamic, it’s the same belief that, whoever you are, that you are entitled to force whatever you want on another human being.”

Kapor Klein and poses with her friends, including Anita Hill (third from left). // Photo courtesy of Smash

AFTER EARNING HER PH.D., SHE FOUND herself in an unexpected position. She had spent the entirety of her young career in prisons and rape crisis centers, but now a tech company, Lotus Software, was courting her aggressively. Mitch Kapor, the company’s founder, wanted Lotus to be different from other tech companies. He had been bullied mercilessly as a child and he said he wanted Lotus to be “more welcoming, more inclusive of different kinds of people, [a place] that let people be who they were as long as they contributed.” Mitch knew Freada was the woman to make Lotus just that kind of place, and he thought she might accept the challenge. “While she has never had sympathy for mainstream corporate values putting profit above people,” Mitch said, “she also has no patience for dysfunctional cultures of nonprofit organizations or doctrinaire ideologues.”

He wanted her “to make Lotus the most progressive employer in the U.S.” 

“I had never imagined myself working for a corporation,” Kapor Klein said, “but I thought, well, I could do that.”

In 1984, she became the director of employee relations and under her leadership, Lotus became one of the first major companies to participate in the AIDS walk. But her task was also to create a progressive culture in-house, and this meant finding a way to accommodate a variety of people with different backgrounds, needs, and perspectives. 

Part of the challenge facing workplaces, as Kapor Klein explained in a 1991 interview with Today show host Katie Couric, is that what constitutes sexual harassment is not the same for everyone. “Each of us ought to have that right to define the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate,” Kapor Klein told Couric, who illustrated the point with a clip from a management training film. In the clip, an attractive blonde woman is repeatedly bothered in an elevator by a male colleague who says things like “that perfume you’re wearing really turns me on.” Once off the elevator, another colleague, also a woman, says “Kathy, lighten up, will you? Jack’s just kidding around.”

Kapor Klein’s task was to create a work environment that could respond to both Kathy and her “lighten-up” colleague’s needs on a large scale. She had an idea: Create an anonymous tip line where employees could voice concerns about discrimination, harassment, and more. She went to the three best engineers at Lotus and asked, “Can you build me an email system where the emails show up only to me?” She called it Lotus Grapevine. The tips that came in were not just about sexual harassment. “Lotus makes us crazy,” one employee wrote. “Lotus should pay. Can we have better mental health benefits?”

Anita Hill’s testimony was an opportunity for “consciousness raising,” and during this time, Kapor Klein became a de facto educator to the American public, appearing regularly on NBC.

Another substantive change Kapor Klein made was to demand a slush fund that could be used to help employees in sensitive situations. “If managers knew about it,” she said, “it would forever change their views of employees,” so the fund had to be entirely up to her discretion. In one case, a female employee came to her crying and said that her alcoholic, abusive husband was throwing all her belongings on the street. Kapor Klein explained, “It was still the era … where if you had a husband like that, people looked at you like, well, why can’t you control him more? Why did you pick him? Or how did you provoke him? Somehow it was their fault. And so I used my slush fund to get her a new apartment and a lawyer to help her get a restraining order.” 

It was a win for the woman, but also for Lotus because they didn’t have to hire and train someone else. When asked what she thought the woman would have had to do without access to the slush fund, Kapor Klein said, “I think all too often she would have had to quit her job and flee the area and go live with a family member or a friend, somebody in a different community, to hide.”

IN 1991, THE COUNTRY WAS RIVETED BY Clarence Thomas’s nomination hearings for the Supreme Court, which were dominated by Anita Hill’s accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Much of the country hadn’t heard the term “sexual harassment” before. But in second-wave feminist terms, Hill’s testimony was an opportunity for “consciousness raising,” and during this time, Kapor Klein became a de facto educator to the American public, appearing regularly on NBC to explain how Hill’s experiences fit with her research, and to give a name to what many women had experienced. As she told Tom Brokaw in an interview that occurred during a recess from the hearing, “The pattern of behavior she described is typical—the sexual comments, teasing, jokes, questions are the most common form of unwanted attention.”

Over the years, Kapor Klein worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies, helping them root out discrimination and harassment from their office culture, and often this involved writing the office romance policy. One problem with writing office romance policies—the writer is obligated to follow them. While consulting for Goldman Sachs, she found herself in the crosshairs of the very policy she had helped write. 

She met Lotus founder Mitch Kapor in the mid-1980s while working for Lotus, but “he was not flirtatious,” she said. “Nothing.” They had a close working relationship, and Freada challenged Mitch, which he liked. “Freada helped me grow as a leader by speaking truth to power,” he said. “It often took me far out of my comfort zone, but she helped me grow and understand the greater responsibilities of leaders that come with success and power, the need to set an example, and hold oneself to a higher standard.” Fast forward more than a decade to 1996 when Mitch and Freada were working with Goldman—Freada as a consultant, while Goldman was competing to do the IPO for one of Mitch’s companies—and both Freada and Mitch were single. They began to date. “I thought, OK, great, we’re gonna get seen at some restaurant in New York or Boston,” Kapor Klein said, “and somebody’s gonna think I’m tipping the IPO his direction or I’m telling him Goldman secrets or something.” The policy that she had written said essentially, “nobody’s going to get fired for a welcomed relationship. You will get fired for lying about it.”

Kapor Klein and her husband Mitch Kapor outside the Kapor Center in Oakland // Photo courtesy of the Media News Group / Bay Area News via Getty Image


So she disclosed the relationship to the partner who was overseeing her work and received the following response: “Thank you, it was the right thing to do to disclose it, and I need to discuss this with the Management Committee.” Kapor Klein thought she was having a summer romance and now her dating life was being dissected by Goldman’s partners, which have included many a Treasury Secretary, a New York governor, and other notables. Eventually she got an email back: “We discussed this with the Management Committee,” the email read. “It was the right thing to do to disclose. I was asked to remind you of your confidentiality agreement as a consultant.” But then the partner signed off: “P.S., I’ve never met Mitch, but I hear he’s a mensch.” 

THE KAPORS HAVE BEEN MARRIED SINCE 1999. These days, they are “failing at retirement,” while running the Kapor Center, a nonprofit seeking to increase diversity in tech. 

Many of the ideas that were ascendant in the early part of Kapor Klein’s career have come to fruition. “We’ve got a language, we’ve got a public discourse for the first time,” Kapor Klein said. Sexual harassment, date rape, marital rape—by and large, people understand these words now. And the #MeToo movement has resulted in the ouster of numerous powerful men—though the reckoning hasn’t been complete. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, seemed to many an unsettling echo of Anita Hill’s testimony, especially when Kavanaugh was confirmed in spite of it. 

But when asked if she’s disappointed by how slowly progress has come, she points to another powerful man who has been held accountable for his transgressions. “Look, Harvey Weinstein just got a 23-year sentence. That didn’t happen in the ’70s, or the ’80s, or the ’90s, or the first 20 years of this century.”

Laura Smith is deputy editor of California.

***Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly described the School of Criminology as the precursor to the School of Social Welfare.

From the Summer 2020 issue of California.

Share this article