A few days after Anita Hill gave her riveting testimony, I got to discussing it with a grandmother at a child’s birthday party. This elderly woman was outraged at Hill: what a liar, schemer, exhibitionist and slut! Why don’t you believe her? I asked. Don’t you think these things happen all the time? Of course they do! she answered. You should know what I went through!
That was the old view of sexual harassment: your boss chased you around the desk and that was just the way it was: men will be men, and women protest at their peril. That’s still the way they think about it in France, I hear, where male professors, bosses and even Socialist politicians pressuring women for sex is widely viewed as the sort of thing only American puritans could possibly object to.
Hill changed all that. The hearings were vivid proof that, actually, the absence of women in government does matter: the spectacle of all those awful, clueless senators—I’m looking at you, Joe Biden!—professing themselves so shocked they could barely repeat Hill’s allegations, which fortunately were merely the ravings of an unbalanced and sexually frustrated mediocrity. Hill showed those men for what they were, and she showed Clarence Thomas for what he was too. And even though he was well ensconced on the bench by the time Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson vindicated her in Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, and even though none of those senators suffered five minutes for their deeply sexist and disingenuous attacks on her, she is the hero of history, and they are the tired old swine.
Has anything changed? Nafissatou Diallo might not think so—but Dominique Strauss-Kahn would probably disagree about that. We have so far to go, we can forget how far we’ve come. When women students at Yale, fed up with the disgusting antics of misogynist frat boys, file a complaint with the university, that’s progress. When a policeman’s off-the-cuff advice that women avoid rape by not “dressing like sluts” sparks a worldwide protest movement, that’s progress. And when a young friend of mine, in her very first job, feels it’s her right to complain to her boss about the sexist cartoons with which he decorates the office, that’s progress too. I couldn’t have done that when I was her age.
Anita Hill suffered greatly, but she changed the world. I wonder what that grandmother would say now?
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
“Taking Up the Legacy of Anita Hill,” by Jessica Valenti