Anita Hill's Legacy

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

  • Alex Wong / Newsmakers / Getty Images

    Anita Hill in 2000

    A year ago, as Americans watched the confrontation between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, pundits offered two visions of the future. One camp, using words like crusading, empowering and galvanizing, hailed the sexual-harassment hearings as a nationwide consciousness-raising session. They predicted that Hill's brave performance would both embolden other women to come forward with grievances and promote greater sensitivity in the workplace. The other camp warned that the spectacle of 14 white male Senators grilling a young black woman with sometimes rude, often embarrassing, rarely knowledgeable questions would deter other women from lodging harassment complaints. Pointing to polls that showed that almost twice as many people believed Thomas as Hill, some warned that women would draw a discouraging conclusion: no matter how insulting the behavior, they would find it hard to get a fair hearing.

    A year later, it seems both sides were right. As the optimists foresaw, sensitivity to sexual harassment has deepened. Labor lawyers, corporate personnel managers and academics report more interest in the subject; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) logged a record 9,920 harassment complaints in the past year, a rise of 50% over the previous year. But victims have learned how difficult it can be to get their cases resolved. Surveys find that while between 40% and 65% of female workers claim to have experienced sexual harassment on the job, less than 5% file complaints.

    In a curious measure of the shifting sympathies, recent surveys show that today more people believe Hill. According to a Wall Street Journal/nbc News poll, 44% of registered voters now say Hill was telling the truth, up from 24% a year ago, while support for Thomas' version of events has dropped from 40% to 34%.

    Victims of harassment do indeed seem more willing to take action. Some may have been encouraged by changes in the laws that resulted, ironically, from President Bush's surprising reversal on the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Just one week before Hill's appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bush decried the measure as a "quota bill." Shortly after the hearings, Bush made a quick peace with the legislation. As a result, harassment victims, formerly able to claim only back pay and reinstatement, can now seek federal damages awards, both compensatory and punitive, of up to $300,000.

    Labor lawyers who handle such cases reported a surge in inquiries. Manhattan attorney Judith Vladeck vividly recalls giving a speech about sexual harassment to an American Bar Association group in 1980. "It was as if I were talking about something in Sanskrit," she says. "And these were employment lawyers." She now gets three times as many calls from women with complaints as she did before the Senate showdown.

    The proliferation of books, television programs, academic courses and corporate training seminars has also served to raise awareness. "Everyone talks the talk these days," says Lynn Povich, editor in chief of Working Woman. "It's politically correct." When the Pentagon rebuked Navy investigators for failing to take seriously the charges of women molested during the Tailhook convention, it reinforced the notion that men who still "don't get it" proceed at their peril. "The Navy cover-up didn't work," says Professor Mary Coombs of the University of Miami School of Law. "The old idea that women who claim harassment are lying or making a mountain out of a molehill doesn't fly anymore."

    If the good news is that sexual harassment is finally a problem with a recognizable name, the bad news is that many women are still stymied in their efforts to stop workplace offenses. Blatant quid pro quo cases, where promotions and raises are directly linked to sexual favors, are the easiest to litigate, but they are a relative rarity. As men and women both learned in the endless press coverage and office memos that followed the hearings, the most common form of harassment falls under the "hostile environment" umbrella, and may involve anything from lewd jokes to unwelcome physical contact. Many bosses still consider such complaints insignificant, and company procedures and policies often remain vague. As a result, most women continue to fear that if they cry harassment, they will be ignored, stigmatized, even fired.

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