Reconsidering Anita Hill

In 1991 Anita Hill became a household name when she put forward several disturbing claims of workplace harassment by US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Hill had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the allegations about her former boss were credible and compelling. She had not sought the spotlight but agreed to testify at the confirmation hearings largely because she hoped it might help other women in similar situations.

Although Hill passed a polygraph test – which Thomas refused to take – and had colleagues willing to verify her claims, she found herself at the centre of a no-holds-barred political dogfight. She was smeared as a disappointed erotomaniac whose failed hopes of a relationship with Thomas had led her to become a liberal stooge in what Thomas notoriously called a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”

The Senate committee presiding over the resulting media circus was chaired by Joe Biden. He wanted the hearings to end as soon as possible and was reluctant to hear evidence for Hill’s claims. The committee’s ranking Democrat was Senator Ted Kennedy, whose checkered past prevented him from weighing in on the issue. (Kennedy’s nephew was also facing rape allegations at the time.) So when Hill’s credibility seemed to waver – one supporter retracted her story – Thomas was confirmed, albeit by the narrowest margin in a century.

In a memoir published a decade later the right-wing journalist David Brock admitted that he had printed “virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation” he could find to make Hill appear “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” He also revealed that he had used information indirectly provided by Thomas to force a supporting witness to retract her statement. (Brock threatened to reveal highly embarrassing charges from a child-custody case.)

Recent events have thrown a new light on the significance of Hill’s case. Dozens of high profile sexual harassment claims in the US have shown that in many cases victims were deterred from speaking out because they were subjected to very similar forms of intimidation and pressure. Harvey Weinstein had an entire team of lawyers and shady consultants to ensure that his accusers would be quickly discredited, or intimidated into silence. Fox News used settlements and non-disclosure agreements to preserve the reputation of its stars and senior employees, and many other public figures had enablers and supporters who willingly covered their misdeeds with similar coercions.

The resignation of Senator Franken has raised hopes that the #MeToo movement has altered cultural norms in the US and begun to cleanse workplaces and public life of a generation of predatory men. But Anita Hill’s case shows that this tipping point could easily have been reached 25 years earlier. Instead Thomas’s confirmation was followed by the presidency of a politician who survived proven allegations of far more serious workplace harassment, not to mention the heydays of scores of men whose careers are now overshadowed by scandal. Furthermore, even now an alleged paedophile is leading a hotly contested Senate race and a man who bragged about mistreating women is president.

With retrospect Anita Hill’s case not only raises questions about the fight for credibility that women face when they dare to take on powerful men, it makes the obsessive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails – and questions of her trustworthiness – during the 2016 election campaign seem less than disinteresting. It indicates the gap between stated ideals of gender equality and the hard realities of contemporary life.

These disparities are noticeable in every profession but particularly striking in one unexpected field: journalism. A 2010 survey of 500 media companies in 60 countries found that three quarters of senior management were male as were two-thirds of the journalists. Women were closer to parity in the senior ranks of newsgathering, editing and writing, with 40 per cent of the jobs but were still seriously underrepresented. The harassment scandals that have engulfed the US in recent months, and the long silences that preceded them, are a painful reminder of how slowly societies change themselves, and how important these changes can be.

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