From Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill to #MeToo
A few weeks ago, New York magazine ushered in Women’s History Month with a cover story on a man. “The Case for Impeaching Clarence Thomas,” by former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, opens with a fresh accusation against the Supreme Court justice. Moira Smith, a lawyer, says that Thomas groped her at a Washington dinner party in 1999.
The road from the Thomas hearings to #MeToo has been long. Yet for those who see the current moment as a watershed, it can be useful to revisit the storm surrounding his confirmation in 1991. Anita Hill’s testimony that he had sexually harassed her divided the country, arousing a fury that even now has not fully played itself out. Her 1997 account of the controversy, “Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power,” remains an important touchstone in the literature on harassment.
Hill was dissatisfied with her job at a law firm when she met Thomas through a friend. Not long afterward, the rising Republican star invited her to serve as his assistant in the Department of Education. In the summer of 1981, she writes, shortly after she began work, Thomas started pressuring her to go out with him and speaking graphically about sex.
Hill kept hoping Thomas would stop. And he did, she writes — for a while. So when Thomas was promoted to a job at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Hill followed him — partly, she says, because he intimated that the Education Department would soon be abolished. Not long after both arrived at the EEOC, according to Hill, Thomas’s harassment resumed. In the summer of 1983, she fled to Oklahoma, where she took a job teaching law.
Hill’s measured account revisits all the indignities of the Senate hearings, including the bizarre charge that, fantasizing men’s interest in her, she suffered from “erotomania.” Many harassment victims will recognize the second guessing and self-blame she describes. Yet despite the loss of her privacy and the attacks on her character (not to mention a bomb threat), she remained convinced that she was right to report her experience to the Senate.
Sexual-harassment complaints filed with the EEOC rose by more than 50 percent the next year, and many women were inspired to run for office. Still, the overarching message was that women who spoke up risked personal destruction.
Around the time Hill faced a gauntlet of TV cameras, dozens of women present at a convention of naval aviators ran a gauntlet of men who seemed bent on gang rape. Jean Zimmerman brings their experience at a Las Vegas hotel terrifyingly to life in “Tailspin – Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook.”
After months of the Navy trying to suppress the scandal, a frustrated Lieutenant Paula Coughlin told “ABC World News Tonight”: “I was attacked by naval officers and Marine Corps officers who knew who I was . . . It was the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life.”
Though Coughlin was vilified and eventually left the Navy, Zimmerman’s examination of the event and sexism in military culture is ultimately hopeful. The scandal tainted or cut short the careers of admirals and hundreds of aviators. Early in the Clinton administration, continued pressure from Navy women fliers ended their exclusion from combat.
“Debating Sexual Correctness: Pornography, Sexual Harassment, Date Rape and the Politics of Sexual Equality” provides a broader view. An absorbing collection of pieces by writers such as Susan Faludi, Camille Paglia, Mary Gaitskill, and Stephen Carter with a superb introduction by editor Adele Stan, the book traces how workplace harassment figured in the evolution of feminist thought from the 1970s through the Hill-Thomas hearings. A 1976 column by Letty Cottin Pogrebin in the Ladies Home Journal may have been the first to articulate the problem. Women eager to share their experiences responded with an avalanche of mail.
Pogrebin wrote that once harassment occurred, the scandal was usually resolved thusly: “He’s reprimanded and she’s fired.” And thus Gretchen Carlson’s ouster from her Fox News anchor chair might have ended. For a change though, she and other accusers are claiming victory. Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox chairman Roger Ailes forced his departure in 2016.
Her book, “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back,” will disappoint readers looking for the particulars (a $20 million settlement buys a lot of silence). But, describing others’ experiences and some of her own, she urges victims to fight back.
Many women will resist feminist instruction from a former Miss America. And Carlson does have some blind spots. The day her lawsuit became public, a stranger thanked her: “I knew [then],” she writes, “the issue of sexual harassment was bigger than just my story.”
It is an odd discovery for a woman who, as a young newscaster, covered the Hill-Thomas hearings. (Recounting the experience, she refers to Hill as “Anita.” Thomas, of course, is Thomas. You go, Gretchen.)
Carlson does report that HR departments are often of little help to harassment victims. Indeed, she says, speaking up almost always means walking away from a career. But she offers some useful advice on gathering evidence. Be fierce, in other words, but document.
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.