It might seem that American culture has changed overnight for women accusing powerful men of sexual misconduct. The truth is that it’s taken decades — or more — for a slow heat to finally boil over.
The guilty verdict against Bill Cosby might seem to say that American culture has changed overnight for women accusing powerful men of sexual misconduct.
After all, a year ago, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose dominated morning TV. Harvey Weinstein’s movie empire seemed untouchable.
In just months, it’s all come tumbling down.
The truth is that it’s taken decades — or more — for a slow heat to finally boil over.
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Anita Hill told her truths to a public unfamiliar even with the term sexual harassment in 1991, and the man she accused became a Supreme Court justice.
But since the change began, it has come fast and relentlessly.
There is now a clear shift toward believing credible accusers. This is because of the now-undeniable truth — revealed in painstaking reporting — that some of the most powerful men in American media, entertainment, business and politics for too long abused women with impunity.
“This is fast culture change and an important milestone, but it’s taken centuries to get here,” said Nancy Erika Smith, who represented Gretchen Carlson in her suit against Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes. He stepped down from his post atop the media world in mid-2016.
Once the boiling point was reached, there was no turning down the heat.
The New York Times and the New Yorker wrote their first stories about Harvey Weinstein’s accusers barely six months ago. After that, so many other stories about sexual abuse and assault quickly followed. Congressmen, comics, business moguls, actors, journalists. Across many industries and workplaces, powerful figures have tumbled, one after another, like so many high-flying birds falling from the sky.
“Anita Hill suffered the horror, initially, of not being believed,” said Jill Abramson, co-author with Jane Mayer, of “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.” A year after the Thomas confirmation hearings, she told me, the number flipped: More Americans believed Hill than Thomas.
“That was the beginning of mass understanding of how endemic the problem of sexual harassment is,” Abramson said.
Cosby’s retrial — following a hung jury last spring when prosecutors first took him to court — was the first prominent criminal trial of the #MeToo era. And though the jury was instructed not to bring recent headlines into their thinking, no one can control the effects of a culture that is righting itself.
“Things are much different now,” Steve Fairlie, a Philadelphia-area defense attorney told my Washington Post colleague Manuel Roig-Franzia earlier this month.
Cosby’s defense team, Fairlie said, had to know that “the prosecution is marching into battle waving this banner of #MeToo.”
For many women — including those who have suffered harassment or abuse without being believed — the guilty verdict against Cosby seems almost miraculous. It’s a day they never thought would dawn.
Roig-Franzia wrote of the charged reaction in the Pennsylvania courtroom Thursday, relating how, as the forewoman of the jury said the words, “guilty, guilty, guilty — the courtroom rocked with emotion.”
But while there was profound relief, and release, there remains a sense of what hasn’t happened yet. What hasn’t changed.
Lauren Duca, the firebrand young writer for Teen Vogue, remained far from satisfied, tweeting that the verdict was just a start: “We’re all still part of the society that allowed him to traumatize over 60 women, silencing their stories with fear of backlash, while he thrived in the spotlight for decades.”
A memorable New York magazine cover image in July 2015 featured 35 Cosby accusers in four long rows. Its message was clear: There is strength in numbers.
That Cosby now faces decades in prison is almost unbelievable after all this time.
And within that sense of wonder, paradoxes abound.
The seismic change that seems so sudden didn’t happen overnight. And the verdict that centered on one brave woman’s truth-telling required the courage of hundreds.