I was only 12 when Anita Hill testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee—we discussed the Senate confirmation hearings in my eighth grade social studies class. I was the only student who believed her. I don’t recall what my classmates’ arguments were or how my teacher reacted; I just remember being livid.
I knew what sexual harassment was—after all, I took the New York City subway to school every day—but Hill’s testimony and the ensuing media madness made me realize this wasn’t something that happened only on trains; it was an issue that affected women throughout their lives. The idea that the nastiness I faced every day on the street could follow me as I got older—that this wasn’t a fleeting problem, and worse, it was something I might not be believed about should it continue to happen to me—was too much to bear. Hill’s ordeal sparked something in me; several months later I went to my first prochoice march with my mother in Washington and started reading feminist books in my spare time.
I’m proud of the outspoken preteen I was, glad I refused to back down over such a glaring injustice. But I’m also sad for that 12-year-old girl—because my optimism at the time, my belief that women wouldn’t be subject to this kind of harassment and character assassination forever, was just plain wrong.
Yes, today we live in a country that believes sexual harassment happens from the street corner to corner offices. The problem, however, is that no one seems to care. We collectively shrug off the information that the majority of female high school and college students report having been sexually harassed, or that more than half a million women are raped annually in the United States. Sure, corporations have sexual harassment seminars and schools have orientations (that are roundly mocked as being too PC). But as a culture, we see sexual harassment and violence against women as an unfortunate inevitability rather than an epidemic that requires urgent action.
Despite decades of work by feminists, the myth that women somehow deserve sexual harassment and assault hasn’t died. When graduate student Imette St. Guillen was found raped and beaten to death in New York City in 2006, for example, the Wall Street Journal ran an article headlined, Ladies, You Should Know Better, referring to the fact that St. Guillen had been at a bar before she was attacked. When Julian Assange was accused of rape in 2010, even progressive “heroes” like Michael Moore and iconic feminist Naomi Wolf rushed to his defense. Wolf wrote a series of mocking pieces for the Huffington Post claiming that Assange’s accusers were simply women scorned and also claimed, outrageously, that starting to have sex with someone while they are asleep and unable to consent is not rape. Perhaps most disgusting was conservative blogger Robert McCain’s response: “Listen up, sweetheart: You buy the ticket, you take the ride.”
Despite the onslaught of victim-blaming and the downright apathy that surrounds the harassment and violence still done to women, I feel (dare I say it?) optimistic once more. I’m fortunate to be part of a generation of activists—men and women alike—who are fighting back in new and innovative ways. When Moore and Wolf took to the airwaves to defend Assange, Twitter erupted with campaigns to hold them accountable. Now when newspapers run victim-blaming headlines, there are thousands of feminist blogs to hold their feet to the fire. Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), an organization run mostly by young women, puts pressure on college administrations to enact progressive and accountable sexual assault policies. Hollaback!, which started as a blog where women posted pictures of their harassers via cellphones, is now a flourishing anti-harassment organization with outposts all over the world. And most recently, tens of thousands of women are taking to the streets in the global phenomenon SlutWalks—locally organized anti-rape marches that battle the notion that what women wear has some bearing on whether they get raped.
There is still so much work to be done. And there’s no doubt that the lack of cultural progress made since Hill’s historic testimony is disheartening. But what started in 1991 did not end with the confirmation hearings. Hill’s speaking out didn’t just influence elections and bring sexual harassment out of the closet. Her voice and strength, along with the anger of young girls who knew bullshit when they saw it, inspired a generation of feminist activists. It’s what we choose to do with that legacy that matters.
Also in This Forum
“The Legacy of Anita Hill, Then and Now,” by Patricia J. Williams
“A Thank-You Note to Anita Hill,” by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
“Black Women Still in Defense of Ourselves,” by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
“How Anita Hill Changed the World,” by Katha Pollitt