After 20 years, Anita Hill's courage is undimmed

At great cost to herself, she spoke up for sexual harassment victims everywhere

October 17, 2011|Susan Reimer

My faithful readers will remember that I started at The Sun as a sportswriter more than 30 years ago, and they have heard me describe some pretty unpleasant exchanges with both professional athletes and my fellow sportswriters.

For all those years in the locker room and on the sidelines, I believed I had it coming to me.

I had chosen a nontraditional field for a woman, and my presence was considered something between an invasion of privacy and an insult. I was a provocation just showing up for work.

I told myself that as long as nobody touched me — threw a football at my head or shoved me into a locker room stall — I could not complain about what was said to me or behind my back. After all, I had chosen to be there. It was my decision to write about sports.

That was before Anita Hill took the witness stand 20 years ago this month at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and told a shocked nation (the hearings were televised gavel-to-gavel) that her former boss had pressured her for dates, bragged about his sexual prowess and regularly described pornographic movies in detail to her.

When that failed to unnerve her, he demanded to know if she had placed a pubic hair on the Coke can he was drinking from. It might be the most famous question in the history of the soft drink industry.

In response, the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee crucified this African-American woman. Committee member Arlen Specter accused her of "flat-out perjury," and commentators challenged her sanity and her sexuality. They bullied her and demeaned her and suggested that she was a delusional spinster.

Mr. Thomas returned to testify and, in a voice shaking with rage, called the entire proceedings a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

In the end, he was confirmed to the court, albeit by the narrowest margin in 100 years, and Ms. Hill retreated into the shadows, left the University of Oklahoma where she was a professor and the community in which she grew up. She has only recently emerged with a new book and is giving her first substantial interviews since 1991.

The senators on that panel — and indeed just about everybody else 20 years ago — seemed clueless that such sexual harassment went on in the workplace. But plenty of women knew. And they started to talk, first to each other and then out loud. Complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace increased by 50 percent in 1991 and doubled in the five years after. (Not coincidentally, five women were elected to the Senate in 1992, more than tripling its female ranks).

Anita Hill's testimony is also considered the first breach in the dam of civility in public discourse, leading directly to the graphic testimony of President Bill Clinton's encounters with Monica Lewinsky and so much that has been said out loud since.

That is certainly an unpleasant byproduct of such public airing of dirty laundry, but for so many women, Ms. Hill also broke a terrible silence — a code not to complain about their treatment by their bosses.

Certainly, we were afraid of what would happen if we did; the linchpin of sexual harassment is the power of the boss over the subordinate.

But many of us who were pioneers, for want of a better word, in nontraditional fields felt like it was part of the deal, part of life on the frontier. As long as the boss didn't pin us up against the office door, we would endure whatever foul or demeaning things he had to say to us. Words were not weapons, after all.

Anita Hill changed that. Her courage — and you would have to watch those hearings to see how terrible they were for her — let us know we didn't have to put with what the boss did to us in the workplace. And we didn't have to put up with what he said, either.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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