For those men who still don’t understand how other men can describe themselves as “male positive and pro-feminist” (as this magazine and a movement of men here and abroad do), look no further than what’s happened in the 20 years since Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her when he was her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher: it was October 1991 and Thomas, an African American, had been selected by George H.W. Bush to be a Supreme Court justice. For her part, though not auditioning for it, Hill was about to become the Fannie Lou Hamer of the gender justice movement. Her credentials? She had the audacity to claim that Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her and testified to that effect in vivid and graphic detail. If the hearings had been held, say 10 years ago instead of 20, it is highly unlikely he would have been confirmed.
After a rushed three-day hearing over the Columbus Day weekend, the Senate confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52–48, the narrowest margin in a century. In the end, Hill won the larger victory—bringing the long sordid history of sexual harassment out of the closet and onto a televised, national stage. By speaking truth to power, Anita Hill put a crack in the wall of male privilege rivaling the one in the Liberty Bell.
Legions of women resigned to the idea that being sexually harassed was just the way life is found in Hill a dignified, graceful champion who in breaking her silence gave permission for other women to break theirs. In the weeks, months, and years that followed their stories came pouring out. Don’t believe me? Ask your grandmother, your aunt, your mother.
While a tiny number of women before Anita Hill had challenged their harassment, the overwhelming majority said nothing. If they reported the perpetrator they put their jobs, housing, and friendships at risk. Then came Anita Hill. Of course women are still being harassed—ask your sister or your daughter. But things have changed. Because of Anita Hill. There are now strong laws against sexual harassment. Even though most of society does not—like a brightly lighted mall parking lot—continuously illuminate the dangers women and girls regularly face, it nonetheless no longer turns a blind eye.
When Anita Hill looked across the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room at the beginning of her testimony, 14 white male senators looked back. It’s painful to recall the way many of them treated Hill, then a University of Oklahoma law professor (now a highly regarded professor at Brandeis University and an accomplished author). Rude. Demeaning. Hostile. The way the bosses on Mad Men treat the women who are their secretaries. That there are still men who “just don’t get it”—the rallying cry of women outraged at the obtuseness of the senators—and who think that it’s all better now, that men bear scant responsibility for how other men treat women, is a painful reminder of how much farther men have to go. (And that begins with us, with me, in our own relationships, acknowledging the vestiges of privilege and entitlement that still hold sway.)
Maybe their journey to understanding would have been accelerated had they been in New York in mid-October to attend a conference called “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later.” They would have been in an audience of several hundred people when the memories came flooding back—made vivid as they watched a seven-minute clip from Julian Schlossberg’s documentary film about the hearings, Sex & Justice. They would have recalled—or learned about—the national conversation about sexual harassment that began then, about the audacity of out of touch middle-aged senators unsuccessfully trying to ask questions without revealing their heterosexual male sexual fantasies.
Ask a woman who trusts you about her story of harassment and see if you don’t feel humbled, sad, and inspired by what women have had to carry, and still carry, ever vigilant for their safety from sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Watching the hearings women looked at the 14 white men on the Judiciary Committee and saw a boys’ club that “too easily dismissed Ms. Hill’s accusations and did not allow the testimony of other women who might have corroborated or helped buttress her account to prove a case of sexual harassment,” as The New York Times wrote in a 2008 story about the hearings. What might have happened if those witnesses had been allowed to testify?
At the center of the hearings, was Joe Biden, then chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Biden was accused of treating “Mr. Thomas too even-handedly” because of the racially charged nature of the hearings and not intervening forcefully enough when Ms. Hill was being, well, manhandled. Remember Thomas’s complaint that he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching”? The counterargument—which never got as much airtime—was Ms. Hill as victim of a modern-day witch hunt.
Now the vice president, in the ensuing two decades Biden has put women’s safety—from domestic violence to sexual assault—at the top of his list of political priorities. Among the strongest of advocates working to enact the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, earlier this year he took the lead in passionately urging America’s schools—from secondary through university—to do more to prevent sexual assault.
Joe Biden isn’t the only man to have grown over the past 20 years. His notoriety, though, can be an inspiration to others. He now better understands the truth of women’s lives than he did in 1991. Here’s the question for the rest of us: Do we?