When Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991, sexual harassment had already been declared illegal by the Supreme Court five years earlier. In Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank of Washington, the court held that sexual harassment that is ”sufficiently severe or pervasive” to create ”a hostile or abusive work environment” violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination in the workplace. Yet, it was not until the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings that the public fully engaged in a discussion about sexual harassment.
Supreme Court rulings don’t translate into changes on the ground overnight.
It is hard to imagine that today the Thomas hearings would proceed to confirmation the way they did 27 years ago. But this has far less to do with developments in the law than it does with changes in societal views.
Sexual harassment has been prohibited for more than a quarter century. Yet, this form of sex discrimination is still rampant. In 2016, nearly 7,000 charges of sexual harassment were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But that number doesn’t represent the full scope of the problem as the vast majority of sexual harassment victims don’t report it or file any claim. The reasons women stay silent are manifold. They don’t want to risk their jobs, they fear others won’t believe them, they don’t want to relive the experience or suffer through a legal proceeding, they worry about a defamation suit being filed against them, or they are legally prohibited from speaking up or filing a legal action by non-disclosure clauses or mandatory arbitration.
When Anita Hill testified, she was disbelieved and chastised by members of the all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee. Senator Arlen Specter accused her of perjury. Senator Orrin Hatch referred to her as the tool of “slick lawyers.” Senator Alan Simpson remarked, “I really am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill. I’ve got letters hanging out of my pocket. I’ve got faxes. I’ve got statements from Tulsa saying: Watch out for this woman.” In the end, as members of the Senate had to decide whether they believed Hill or Thomas, the majority voted to confirm – following a long tradition in he-said/she-said disputes of siding with the man in power.
Today, with #MeToo and the national conversation about sexual violence, less shame attaches to women who share their stories and fewer women are being blamed for the harassment and abuse they have suffered. Indeed, attention is turning from questions about the victim to a focus on the perpetrator, his actions and the structures and institutions that hid the abuse. For the first time, we are seeing real consequences for sexual harassment. Powerful men are being fired or stepping down in Hollywood, in media, in the restaurant business, in Congress, and even in the federal judiciary.
How can we carry this moment forward? First, we must ensure that all women (and men) who suffer sexual harassment are able to be heard. This includes low-income women, immigrant women, and women of color who lack access to lawyers eager to sue the rich and famous. Second, we must provide victims of gender-based violence and harassment that occurs outside the employment context or other spheres protected by civil rights laws with more tools to hold perpetrators accountable, including civil rights remedies. Further, we need more women in positions of power in every industry, legislature, and court system, so that not all bosses are men and harassment at the workplace will not be brushed under the rug.
Finally, we need cultural change that starts with the young, like educational reforms that treat boys and girls the same rather than relying on sex stereotypes and programs that teach the meaning and harm of sexual harassment in early grades.
There should be no turning back from this watershed moment. But lasting transformation will require vigilance and structural change.