Within days of the January premiere of “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power,’’ I heard from women and men who recounted the rage, indignation, and often embarrassment they felt when they witnessed the Senate’s demeaning and openly hostile reaction to my 1991 testimony about workplace sexual harassment at the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It is clear that the hearing still has resonance today and though feelings have abated and even morphed over time, they haven’t disappeared. With the benefit of more than two decades of perspective, we can revisit the hearing and take what we learned from it to address sexual harassment issues that remain unresolved in government, military, workplaces, and on college campuses.
The film’s footage of the hearing, but for the style of the senators’ suits and the fact that many of them are still in office today, might feel more like scenes from the dawn of the 20th century than its final decade. On display are indifference and, in many instances, cynical resistance to the very idea that workplace sexual misconduct exists. Even those senators who acknowledged the presence of workplace harassment seemed not to understand its relevance to the consideration of a life-long appointment to the nation’s highest court. Prominent leaders are caught on tape resorting to caustic myths about working women, proving themselves to be both out of touch with the reality of our contemporary experiences and ill-prepared for a future where women’s participation in the labor force would continue to increase dramatically.
In the film, we see the confluence of ethical compromises and political machinations that led to the Democrats and Republicans behavior. We see Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree turn Thomas’s “high tech lynching” metaphor on its head, confirming that African-American women were not spared the harsh history of racial violence that is part of our country’s shameful past. And we see a group of girls who share their stories of school and street harassment and their efforts to combat it.
Since the hearing, thousands of women and men have filed suits to protect the right to work and learn in environments free of sexual harassment. But even with all the valiant and sometimes painful efforts we’ve made to educate and build a community of self-empowered women and girls, a broad spectrum of sexual misconduct, ranging from sexual harassment (increasingly via the Internet) to stalking and assault, persists in our schools, workplaces, and the military. And a generation of people have entered into domains where these behaviors are all too familiar.
Noting sexual abuse in the military and on college campuses, former President Jimmy Carter declares in his new book, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power,” that we have a long way to go to reach gender equality in America. He is correct; true equality is yet a goal. And a look back at the Thomas confirmation hearing makes clear that informed and committed leaders are necessary if we are to reach it.
Fortunately, Washington lawmakers have an opportunity to put in place policies that will support students and those in the military. On April 23, President Obama will receive a report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In addition to promoting public awareness and violence prevention, the group has been charged with sharing best practices for reporting, investigating, and prosecuting sexual assault on college campuses. Those best practices must be backed by enforcement measures that make clear campus leadership’s responsibility to keep students safe.
The military sexual assault procedures introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and currently under congressional review have the potential to reduce even the most egregious forms of sexual misconduct in the military. We need only look at the court martial of Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair to understand that well-defined procedures are of critical importance to justice and confidence in our systems.
Once fully in effect, the rules for military sexual assault prosecution and the best practices for colleges and universities will curtail sexual harassment and other abuses throughout the academy and in the military.
Now, the question is not whether the same Senate confirmation hearing could happen today. For me the question is what are we willing to do to make sure the mistakes of 1991 are not repeated.