It’s been 26 years since Anita Hill, soft-spoken and deliberate in her bright blue suit, sat before a Senate panel and detailed the lurid sexual harassment charges that would transfix a nation. Clarence Thomas went on to the Supreme Court, but Hill’s testimony was a watershed moment that raised awareness in incalculable ways.
Will the sordid Harvey Weinstein scandal be recalled as another one of those watershed moments, its reverberations spilling out of Hollywood into the everyday workplace? Hill is one of those who think it will.
“I absolutely think we needed something to push the needle, and this has done it,” Hill said in an interview from Brandeis University, where she has led a quiet academic life since 1998.
All along, Hill says, there have been bits and pieces that have moved that needle a bit. But the Weinstein story, with its ever-growing cascade of disturbing revelations, reminds her of her own ordeal. “I think one of the reasons 1991 was so impactful was how public it was — people had faces and voices, and it was almost like a long conversation about how these things play out. This Weinstein story feels like a long conversation too, with different parts getting developed and different people being brought into it.”
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Since the story broke more than a week ago, some 30 women, from lesser-known names to megastars like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, have emerged to recount disturbing experiences with Weinstein, who has issued a blanket denial of nonconsensual sexual conduct. (In just the latest accusation, actress Eva Green said Saturday she once had to physically “push off” the powerful producer in a meeting.) Simultaneously, a growing chorus of public figures has been denouncing him.
One of the latest high-profile figures to weigh in: Gloria Steinem. In an email message to the Associated Press, Steinem said: “I hope and believe all the attention to Harvey Weinstein will encourage many more women — and men — to tell the firsthand truth about sexual assault, harassment and bullying. I remind the media and prosecutors that people who come forward in these cases are likely to be telling the truth because there is so little reward — and often punishment — for doing so. Please believe the accusers and investigate!”
But Steinem added that not everyone should be expected to have known of Weinstein’s alleged misdeeds. “My one worry is that this case is being made to seem too obvious, with blame for people who didn’t know,” she said. “In fact, Weinstein also made great movies with and about powerful women he did not sexually harass, because like so many sexual abusers, he exploited powerlessness.” (Weinstein was among 425 donors to a chair in feminist studies at Rutgers University named after Steinem; Rutgers says it will keep that donation.)
While Hill, now 61 and a professor of social policy and gender studies, has been buoyed by the attention being paid to sexual harassment in light of the Weinstein story, she cautioned that progress is always incremental: “This case may be bigger than some in the past, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that everything is going to change overnight from one episode, even as big as this one.”
A key problem, she said, is that so many women still fear retaliation or that they won’t be believed if they come forward. “When a person is a big Hollywood star, it’s easier for that person to be embraced and not feel the repercussions of speaking out,” she said. “But when they’re young … they have their lives to think about.”
And so, many sexual harassment cases are never reported, Hill and others note, which makes it difficult to gauge the scope of the problem. Even when they are, many cite the huge role that both confidential settlements and mandatory arbitration play in keeping cases hidden from view.
“It’s secrecy on secrecy,” says Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News Channel anchor whose allegations brought down late Fox chief Roger Ailes. Carlson says she’s now lobbying on Capitol Hill against mandatory arbitration clauses — in which employees, as a condition of employment, agree to resolve claims via arbitration, not the judicial system. “These clauses are one reason we don’t ever know about this, why it stays in the shadows,” she says. “And guess what else happens: the woman gets fired from her job and the perpetrator gets to stay in the workplace, and nobody knows about it. It’s outrageous!”
“It’s a terrible system,” concurs Washington lawyer Debra Katz, who specializes in sexual harassment law. “It conceals what happens … and you’re denied the opportunity to have your day in court with a jury of your peers.” She adds that arbitration strongly favors employers, “because the arbitrators want to be rehired.”
Meanwhile, most cases that do reach the legal system end in settlements, which almost always involve confidentiality clauses. Some, like Carlson, say this further contributes to the veil of secrecy around sexual harassment. Others, like Katz, say it’s more complicated: Some women just want to move on, and fear their careers will be threatened if it’s known they filed a claim.
Even Hill is conflicted about the issue of confidentiality. On one hand, she says, it often benefits the perpetrator; Weinstein likely benefited from agreements “that allowed him to continue to behave badly, with no accountability.” On the other, when women do make complaints, the fact that they’ve made them can follow them. “And the reality is, most institutions and people in power aren’t looking positively on a person who has filed a complaint,” Hill says. “So there’s still a negative public reaction, even though we say it’s wrong.”
Despite all this, Carlson feels change afoot. “I feel more buoyed than I have in the last 15 months about cultural change,” she says, pointing not just to Weinstein, but to harassment cases at Uber, at tech firms, at venture capitalist firms, and at Amazon Studios. “I feel like this is a tipping point, where women are saying we’re not putting up with this crap anymore.”
As for Hill, who has said many of her young students don’t even know about her 1991 ordeal in which she testified Thomas had sexually harassed her — allegations he vehemently denied before being narrowly confirmed by the Senate — she notes wryly: “I certainly didn’t think this is what I would be talking about 26 years later.”
“I have to say that I didn’t appreciate how complicated it was, how entrenched it was,” she adds. “And we’re going to have to just keep pushing it and engaging a new generation of people to bring their own sense of what’s right and wrong. I’m confident that inch by inch, we will make some change.”