When Anita Hill stepped forward in the fall of 1991 to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, she faced a wall of disbelief and disrespect. The Committee’s 10 white male members asked her insulting and disrespectful questions; the media labelled her “a little nutty and a little slutty.” Thomas would go on to be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he still sits today.
Some feared that the treatment of Anita Hill by the Senate and the media would discourage women from stepping forward and reporting sexual harassment. In fact, the exact opposite happened.
In the years following Anita Hill’s testimony, claims of sexual harassment in employment filed with federal and state governments more than doubled—from 6,883 in 1991 to 15,618 in 1998. Students also started filing more charges for sexual harassment against educational institutions. Anita Hill’s testimony, broadcast live and around-the-clock on C-Span, raised awareness about sexual harassment and mobilized women and girls to fight back on multiple fronts.
The first front was the law. Shortly after the hearings, President George Bush, who had been threatening to veto the pending Civil Rights Act of 1991, changed course and signed the bill after Anita Hill’s testimony spurred widespread outrage denouncing sexual harassment. The Act for the first time created punitive damages and a right to a jury trial for employment-based sexual harassment claims. The next year, over Thomas’ dissent, the Supreme Court recognized for the first time students’ right to sue schools for sexual harassment in the case of Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, opening doors to a flood of lawsuits from students in high schools and colleges across the country.
Politically, a record number of women ran for Congress and won. In 1992, the year after the Hill-Thomas hearing, the number of women in the Senate tripled and 24 new women joined the U.S. House of Representatives. Then, in 1994, after the acquittal of OJ Simpson for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, the women’s movement won a long-sought-after goal: passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which provided generous funding for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and services, and created a federal civil rights remedy against gender-based violence. Anita Hill’s testimony spurred all of these political and legal developments that made it easier for women and girls to challenge sexual harassment and assault.
But as Cynthia Enloe argues in her recent book, The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy, male entitlement is stubborn, resilient and adaptable. In 2000, a majority of the Supreme Court, including Clarence Thomas, ruled in U.S. v. Morrison that the civil rights remedy for gender based violence was unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress lacked jurisdiction to create such a remedy. The defenders of patriarchy also figured out ways to get around laws against sexual harassment with nondisclosure agreements in legal settlements, which prevent women from speaking publicly about harassment, and mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts, which likewise hide information about sexual harassment. This is how people like Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein were able to repeatedly harass and assault women for decades.
What does this past tell us about what we might expect to happen as a result of today’s sexual harassment uprising? What’s similar and what’s different between then and now?
One similarity is that a man accused of sexually abusing women won high public office—Trump was elected president, just as Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court. But a big difference is that while the media and politicians attacked Anita Hill’s credibility and character, today women stepping forward are believed. This is a stunning difference.
Another difference is social media. It’s always been easier to step forward if you are not alone. And in fact, most men who sexually harass and assault women do so repeatedly. New tools like Callisto and All Voices are providing mechanisms whereby women can find each other, band together, and challenge perpetrators of sexual assault. Collective action—a tool dating back to the 1970s, when feminists first coined the term “sexual harassment“—has always been the most effective way to resist sexual harassment and abuse.
These differences will amplify the effect of women’s speaking out. As in the 1990s, we are likely to see significantly more women and Democrats in public office by this time next year. There is already a dramatic increase in the number of female House candidates—369—including 302 Democrats and 67 Republicans. According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), that’s almost four times the number of women signed up to challenge incumbents at this point in the election cycle in 2015. The number of female candidates running for the Senate has doubled—27 Democrats and 14 Republicans so far—for a total of 41. This is TEN TIMES the number of women running in the 2012 and 2014 elections at this point in the election cycle.
Will these women win? Yes, if recent elections are any indication. Democrats in Virginia picked up 15 seats in the state house this November for a total of 49 out of 100 so far—overturning a Republican supermajority and potentially winning the house (three recounts are still in progress), despite thorough Republican gerrymandering of the state. According to CAWP, “women were 56 percent of all challengers, but 75 percent of the successful challengers in Virginia’s House of Delegate races this year.” And the election was full of surprises, like transgender woman Danica Roem beating the social conservative incumbent Bob Marshal.
What might be some of the legislative responses to “me too”? In the feminist crosshairs are nondisclosure agreements, mandatory arbitration clauses and the current cap on punitive damages for sexual harassment claims. Others are raising objections to the requirement that sexual harassment be “severe or pervasive” before it violates the law. In education, feminists are challenging Betsy Devos’ rollback of Obama-era rules to combat sexual assault and harassment at schools. At a recent Feminist Majority gathering in Boston, Ellie Smeal called for the long-overdue passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Longtime feminist Robin Morgan, in her weekly radio program Women’s Media Center Live, has called for “every man forced to resign his post due to these behaviors, whether in business, academia, politics, or anywhere else, should as a matter of course be replaced by a woman qualified for the job.” Amen.
But, as Enloe argues, feminists must be alert. We must rigorously investigate the ceaseless permutations of patriarchy, and we must be just as flexible, strategic and tireless as those who defend male entitlement and power.
And we must never—ever—give up.