Sexual harassment is a phrase familiar to most Americans. But as recently as the 1990s, even though some sources counted that as many as 90 percent of working women had been subjected to unwanted sexual attention at work, most didn’t have a name for it or know it was against the law.
In October of 1991, the Senate Judiciary Committee was in the process of vetting Judge Clarence Thomas’s character and fitness for a position on the US Supreme Court. The committee subpoenaed me to testify about “allegations of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas.” I had begun working for Thomas 10 years earlier, when I was 25. He hired me and was my immediate supervisor in two federal government jobs. In addition to other offensive behavior, Thomas pressured me for dates and peppered work-related discussions with tales about pornography.
The Senate proceedings aired on national television, riveting millions of viewers over Columbus Day weekend. By following the advice of noted experts on sexual harassment, the Senate Committee could have adopted a transparent and fair process and demonstrated to the public that we can learn the truth about sexual harassment claims. Instead, from the initial rushed investigation to its unceremonious conclusion, the committee seemed bent on adopting a worst-practices model.
Some concluded that the Senate simply chose race over gender once Thomas claimed that the hearing was a “high-tech lynching.” But that explanation fails to take into account that both Thomas and I are African-American. The explanation from Georgetown Law Professor Emma Coleman Jordan makes more sense: The senators were unable to “unravel the layers of racial nuance of the hearing” because they refused to acknowledge any history of sexual violence, particularly against African-American women.
The committee’s hostile and ultimately dismissive treatment of three other women who came forward with their own information about Thomas’s offensive behavior was a disservice to them.
But in the end, the proceedings’ most dangerous outcome was the potentially silencing message it sent to victims that one can never really get to the truth of sexual harassment allegations.
On Saturday, “Confirmation,” a fictional adaptation of that episode, aired on HBO. A new audience, many of whom may not have been born when the actual event took place, now have a chance to relive the drama. For me, nothing could really match the intensity of that original event. But issues of gender, race, and power that the confirmation hearing raised are disturbingly contemporary, and the story is worth retelling for a new generation still looking for answers.
Despite greater awareness of the issue today, sexual harassment remains a problem. In a survey of 200 women working in Silicon Valley in 2015, 60 percent said they had experienced harassment. A poll of women between the ages of 18 and 34, conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine, found 1 in 3 women said they had been sexually harassed on the job. Harassment doesn’t originate in the workplace — sexual taunting, bullying, and extortion are common in elementary and high schools, colleges, and professional schools. Online harassment, often anonymous, seems to be on the rise. And too many employers and school administrators still ignore and underreport complaints, often in the name of protecting a company’s or school’s public image. Longtime antidiscrimination lawyer Kathleen Peratis reports that while some women who bring harassment charges are vindicated, “the sad reality is that others are punished.” It’s no wonder that current reporting rates are only 70 percent.
There is still hope. Brave women and men continue to come forward and share their experiences. Some file complaints, others do not, but coming forward in whatever manner helps illuminate the problem and offers the possibility of eliminating it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has now made it a priority to combat sexual harassment of the most vulnerable workers, often low-income women of color. And some employers are responding to their employees’ demands that their rights be protected. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is vigorously pursuing cases of sexual harassment in schools and on college campuses. And many of our academic institutions are adopting policies and procedures to ensure their students’ safety.
Many errors were made in the Thomas confirmation hearing. But despite them all, my testimony was not a mistake. And, even with the painful memories that “Confirmation” brings back, yes, I would do it again.
Anita F. Hill is an attorney and author, and a professor at Brandeis University.