This past Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Anita Hill’s devastating Senate testimony accusing then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of workplace sexual harassment. In light of the most recent accusations against Donald Trump, it’s hard to miss the almost perfect synchronicity between these two October explosions of gender awareness. In a deeply personal and visceral way, America is having another Anita Hill moment.
In one sense it’s depressing: It’s been 25 years, and yet here we are, still talking about whether a man who allegedly treats women like lifelong party favors, should perhaps be disqualified from our highest governmental positions. But to despair that it’s gender Groundhog Day in America is to fundamentally miss the point: A lot has changed since October 1991, and American women are reaping the benefits of having gone through this looking glass once before. The nearly universal and instantaneous outrage at Trump’s comments and behavior—from the press, from GOP leaders, from really everyone outside of the Breitbart bubble? We have Anita Hill to thank for that.
It’s almost impossible for women like me, who came of age during the Thomas Senate battle, to miss the parallels between the two episodes. In both cases, powerful men allegedly mistreated and shamed women with less power than they had. In both cases these victims came forth reluctantly, and sometimes years later. In both instances, supporters of the man accused of misconduct argued that it was “just words,” or that it was all “years ago,” or that he was merely joking, or that it never happened at all. They argue that if the subordinate was soooo offended, why did she wait to complain?
Back when Hill brought her claims to Capitol Hill, most Americans were barely aware of the term “sexual harassment” or the fact that there was a body of law to be used to fight predatory behavior in the workplace. In a sense, the real awakening came after the hearings had ended, when thousands of women came forward, often in letters they mailed to Hill, to say that this had happened to them and that they hadn’t understood that it was illegal.
As a result of the dawning realizations, the number of sexual harassment cases filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled in just two years. In 1992, later dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” the number of women enrolling in law school peaked at more than 52 percent of all law students, the number of women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives increased by over 60 percent, and the number of women in the U.S. Senate tripled. Dianne Feinstein scored the first female spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee (never again would a woman testify before an all-male panel), and Carol Moseley Braun became the first African American woman in the Senate. In 1993, the Senate added a single-stall women’s bathroom off the chamber floor, finally expanded in 2013 to accommodate the 20 women elected in that session.
None of this just happened. As NPR’s Nina Totenberg put it 25 years after the Thomas hearings, it was because of Hill’s testimony that “all of those silent, female experiences materialized … in the phones exploding on Capitol Hill.” And that was before social media.
Last Friday, after the Washington Post published audio of Trump talking about sexually assaulting women, author Kelly Oxford took to Twitter. “Women: tweet me your first assaults,” she said to her followers, sharing her own harrowing tale under the hashtag #notokay. By late Monday, the New York Times reported, nearly 27 million people had responded. RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, told the Huffington Post that it saw a 33 percent spike in online traffic over the weekend.
My colleague Christina Cauterucci wrote eloquently this week about how women are seeing themselves in Donald Trump’s accusers, to the point where long-buried memories are surfacing, forcing so many of us to confront assaults we had either forgotten, or declined to classify as illegal or improper. This is what Michelle Obama was getting at in her speech on Thursday when she admitted that the revelation about Trump “has shaken me to my core in a way I couldn’t have predicted.”
What took Anita Hill a Senate hearing and years of letters to unearth, broke through via Oxford in two days as she received, and more importantly, showcased, thousands of tweets per hour. That emboldened other Trump victims to come forward. Trump’s latest accuser, Kristin Anderson, said as much to the Washington Post today:
“It’s a sexual assault issue, and it’s something that I’ve kept quiet on my own,” Anderson said. “And I’ve always kept quiet. And why should I keep quiet? Actually, all of the women should speak up, and if you’re touched inappropriately, tell somebody and speak up about it. Actually go to the authorities and press some charges. It’s not okay.”
This dynamic—women who come forward emboldening more women to come forward—is exactly what we saw in the case of Bill Cosby. Only this time it’s even swifter. What became the Year of the Woman in 1992 looks like the Week of the Woman in 2016. That is a spectacular achievement. As sad and frustrating and maddening as it is to hear about women still being abused and treated like dirt by powerful men, this is progress.
Anita Hill’s fight to be heard and respected launched the modern sexual harassment laws by which we are bound, right down to the training videos we must view on our work laptops. But she also created a template in which women could look at predatory behaviors they had largely normalized in their own lives and say that it was not only unacceptable from those seeking higher office, but also unacceptable in their own homes, and workplaces and universities. They could say that there should be processes to hear these stories and processes to adjudicate them. They could say this isn’t just “locker room talk.”
It was that 1991 act of painful storytelling, of enlightening right-thinking men, of refuting and rebuffing tedious arguments about what men do or why women don’t report it, that gave us a model for how to do it again in 2016. Now everyone but the worst among us knows: It’s not OK.