Anita Hill's Legacy

A year after the Clarence Thomas hearings, women wonder if the consciousness-raising made enough of a difference

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Anita Hill in 2000

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Those who work up the courage to bring a grievance to the EEOC often meet with disappointment. Between October 1990 and September 1991, the EEOC received 6,883 complaints but filed only 66 sexual-harassment cases. Fully 60% of all EEOC complainants were advised that they had "no cause" to proceed — more than twice the percentage of cases turned away during the Carter years — and had to wait on average nine months to receive the discouraging news. With the EEOC budget in decline — it has fallen 15% since 1980 — the case load is unlikely to increase.

Even women who are willing and financially able to press their case with a private lawyer may find hidden costs. In 1987, Regina Rhodes filed charges against the owners of the Apollo Theater in Harlem after they refused to take seriously her complaints of unwelcome overtures from a co-worker and eventually fired her. In March she won an $85,000 judgment, but the case is still not over. The theater owners' appeal now proceeds through the New York court system. And the litigation has hurt her professionally. "I had to change the kind of work I was doing. No one wanted to deal with someone who had crossed the Apollo Theater."

And Rhodes' case is considered a success. More often, women seek in-house channels to make their discomfort known. "The vast majority of women try to report sexual harassment informally within their company," says Helen Neuborne, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It's the companies' failure to respond that leads to lawsuits."

Angela Johal's case is typical. She says that when her supervisor at the Canteen Corp. in San Jose, California, grabbed her breasts in April 1991, she complained to company officials. Johal was assigned a new supervisor, but her old boss was not reprimanded. The new supervisor accused her of incompetence, a charge that Johal attributes to the friendship between her new and former bosses. Johal became so depressed that she sought therapy and was put on antidepressants. Finally, she went on disability leave and hired a lawyer. Last February the attorney filed a complaint with the EEOC and initiated a civil suit. "The human resources department," Johal charges, "did nothing to help me." She recalls finding Hill's testimony so painful that she turned off the TV after half an hour.

Others watched every minute and found their thinking altered as a result. In Chicago, Nancy Reif settled her suit against Healthco International just one month before the hearings. Today, as she remembers the colleagues who commented on the size of her nipples and made lewd gestures, she regrets her decision. "Anita Hill would have given me the confidence to take this all the way to court," she says. Other plaintiffs have found that the hearings helped give them credibility. Former steelworker Cindy Chrisulis says that before the hearings, her charges of verbal abuse against a co-worker in Loraine, Ohio, were dismissed by both her company and her union as "his word against mine." Since the hearings, several people have backed up her story. "I am Anita Hill," she says. "Different circumstances, but the same hopelessness, the same isolation."

Nonetheless, many men seem more aware of what constitutes a "hostile environment" in the workplace. "Before Anita Hill testified, I thought sexual harassment was if you touched someone," says Scott Leeds, 24, a C.P.A. in Manhattan. "Now I find myself watching what I say around women." Manhattan financial consultant Peter Cullum is dismissive. "The Anita Hill thing was a political battle," he says. "I don't see it as a transcendent event." Philip Corboy Jr., a Chicago lawyer, apparently did. "I listened to the hearings, listened to the women around me," he says. "The amazing thing to hear is that they all felt like second-class citizens in the workplace." As a direct result, Corboy says, he is more careful about whom he touches and what he says. Surely even the most cynical can agree that that is progress of some sort.

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