'We're going to remember the name Anita Hill'

October 15, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- University of Maryland Professor Ruth Fassinger is so frustrated, so furious and so fed-up by the Clarence Thomas-Anita F. Hill proceedings and their possible outcome, that if she knew where to go, she says she'd move out of the country.

"I'm incensed by this, and I'm very frightened by what's going to happen," says the psychologist, who expects Judge Thomas to be confirmed by the Senate today as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. "The old-boy network is going to kick in and protect itself from a threat. And the message to women who've been sexually harassed is: It doesn't matter who you are and what you do, there's nothing you can do about it.

"If he's confirmed, I just hope there's a national rising up of every woman who's ever been a target of any kind of harassment."

Already there are the ripples of, if not an uprising, a high-pitched debate. Although polls show greater support for Judge Thomas than for Anita Hill, even among women, some women say they're more infuriated and stirred by this episode -- specifically the treatment of Ms. Hill by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the probable confirmation of Judge Thomas -- than nearly any other women's issue in recent history.

"We're going to remember the name Anita Hill like we remember the name Roe vs. Wade," says advice columnist Susan Deitz. "This is that kind of landmark case . . .

"If [Judge Thomas] is confirmed, it only reinforces the message that boys will be boys. And you had better not speak up because you'll be raked over the coals and trivialized and seen as a hysterical, fantasy-prone woman who wants attention and wants be reassured she's desirable as a woman."

One Montgomery County free-lance writer and mother said this is the first issue she's ever considered calling members of Congress about. "I'm furious about it," says Robin Greene. "Sexual harassment on the job is right up there with other important issues like abortion. Of all the things I've had strong opinions about, this is one I feel extremely strongly about. It will affect the Supreme Court for probably my kids' lifetimes.

"I'm not a radical. I don't consider myself a feminist. I'm just a mom who hangs out with her kids."

Baltimore public relations executive Marsha Becker says she believes "there's a lot at stake for women" with the outcome of today's Senate vote on Judge Thomas' nomination. His confirmation, she says, would be "a confirmation of all the negative feelings women have -- the frustration of feeling caught up in a system, and you can't beat it. Having been in the workplace for almost 20 years, I know that every place you go there is sexual harassment. Wake up, world! It's there."

Ms. Becker and many other women say they were especially disturbed watching the hearings since the proceedings recalled their own brushes with sexual harassment in the workplace -- just as it did to several women who testified.

In many cases, women who'd never talked about the subject before started comparing notes and revealing their own stories.

Ms. Becker said she recalled the harassment she suffered on her first job. "I remember as a 16-year-old girl feeling sexually harassed and being too embarrassed to do anything about it. Instead, you wonder, 'Is it the perfume I'm wearing? Or 'Maybe my skirt is a little short.' You just become conditioned, and you deal with it."

And Ms. Greene says her husband was shocked when she told him about a colleague who had harassed her on the job, since she had often spoken well of the man.

"It happens," she said. "It boggles my mind that they think this woman [Anita Hill] is crazy."

But at least, say men and women, the issue is now center stage and the subject of office conversation all over the country.

"I've noticed a lot of men saying, 'Have I ever said anything that could be seen as harassment?' and a lot of women thinking, 'Have I ever been harassed to the point where I should have complained?' " says Sharon Monson, a Washington account executive. "It's opened people's eyes."

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