As we all know, there has been countless media coverage regarding sexual harassment allegations against men of power, including Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Roger Ailes, James Toback, and Ed Westwick; disappointingly, the list goes on and on. Although this behavior has always been around – the term, “sexual harassment,” has been coined since the 1970s – there was one person who truly stirred the pot about the topic: a woman named Anita Hill, whose story forever changed how we talk about sexual harassment in the workplace. Hill graduated from Yale Law School in 1980 with a Juris Doctor degree with honors. She is currently a University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, and she is a faculty member at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Hill’s experience was the stepping stone for awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace. In October 1991, she filed charges against Clarence Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, at the time, a Supreme Court nominee. After recounting her allegations, she created a national stir about what sexual harassment is and who it affects. Her experience ultimately brought the discussion of sexual harassment to the limelight and made a huge impact on society. In fact, her story created a 58 percent national increase of sexual harassment legal cases that year. Since then, these statistics have continued to increase.
According to Merrick Rossein, a law professor at the CUNY School of Law, it was the media attention that changed everything about sexual assault: “Her testimony and the attacks on her resulted in a profound national dialogue and inquiry into sexual harassment in the American workplace. Most people had no idea. They didn’t know what the term meant. They’d never heard of it. So after her testimony and the rise in the women’s anger, there were surveys and studies throughout the American workplace.” The attention from feminists groups and Democrats across the nation was incredible, and ultimately pushed the case forward.
Clarence Thomas argued during Hill’s hearing, saying, “This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.” His argument was poorly executed, but the Senate results were, nevertheless, nothing short of disappointing. On October 15th, 1991, the Senate confirmed Thomas’ nomination 52-48, the closest Supreme Court confirmation vote since 1888. This result was devastating for Hill and for all of the people that supported her bravery.
There were several women who could have also testified against Thomas to confirm these allegations; however, after seeing the intense interrogation of Hill, they remained silent. Ruling these cases in the harasser’s favor is not new to women and is often why women do not come forward with sexual misconduct allegations. Women’s stories are often not believed, or women have to endure a significant amount of interrogation and strain from reliving their assault moments over and over in testimonies. This happened when Bill Cosby was accused of sexual harassment and rape – dozens of women came forward with their own allegations, yet many people stood with Cosby because of his high celebrity status and his wholesome family-man persona, similar to how society reacted to Hill and Thomas. The male dominance of our culture makes people more susceptible to side with men in these kinds of cases, even though statistics show that less than 2 percent of all rape-related cases are false.
Now, we are seeing an uproar of allegations against many powerful men because female victims are no longer staying silent. With all of the women of Hollywood coming forward about sexual harassment, it is difficult not to believe them. It is difficult to discredit hundreds of women against one man, and Anita Hill is an idol to the women of today by being one of the first women to come forward against a man of power.
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