There may be more women heading to Congress this year, but Anita Hill isn’t cheering yet. The woman who faced down the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 does not see transformative change on sexual harassment emerging from any branch of government in Washington for the time being.
During a lengthy conversation at Brandeis University, where she is a professor, Ms. Hill reflected on the aftermath of her own testimony, and of Christine Blasey Ford’s before the committee this year, and the unglamorous slog of what it would really take to confront and redress sexual harassment.
She was alternately tart and deliberative, contained but occasionally allowing a flash of anger to break through her carefully composed sentences.
For now, she said, she is placing more hope in the private sector to police sexual harassment and to avoid the blows many industries have already absorbed to their reputations and morale. As head of the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality, convened a year ago by some of the most powerful players in Hollywood, she is working on best practices that extend beyond preventing and punishing sexual harassment to foster broader cultural change. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Q. We’re at a bookend moment — two women who endured public exposure and attacks, two Senate hearings that ended with the accused nominees’ confirmation. Has the tide turned and the momentum of the #MeToo movement slowed?
A. If you define the tide by the Senate Judiciary Committee, you’re missing a whole lot. Clearly the tide has not turned either with the outcome of the hearings or the process. That is really inexcusable. It’s as though they stuck their heads into the sand and assumed either it didn’t matter or they didn’t need to pay attention to it. I think that was the problem 27 years ago. The political question is whether or not they are in touch or not with the reality of our lives to be representing us.
Q. When you look at the myriad institutions that have been wrestling with this, what would it take to really implement changes?
Ms. Hill testified during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.CreditJose R. Lopez/The New York Times
A. 1991 was one of those experiences that was really horrifying for a lot of women. I don’t use that word lightly. I see women today who are still in pain and reeling from 1991 and then revisited it and brought up more memories in the Kavanaugh hearing.
The 1991 hearing had a peculiar impact. People predicted that women would never come forward, and just the opposite happened. They came forward in record numbers. Rules and practices were put into place, people started having conversations, lawsuits were filed, more cases went to the Supreme Court in the next three years. There had only been one Supreme Court case before 1991. On the political front, women ran for office because they felt they weren’t being represented.
Something did happen, but there was also backlash. You saw the rise in these forced arbitration agreements. Nondisclosure agreements took hold and started to rise in the ’90s. Increasingly, class action lawsuits were more and more difficult.
Increasingly as well, organizations started to look at the response to sexual harassment as an effort to make sure there was a compliance with the law and not an effort to solve the problems that existed. This experiment of how we’re going to address harassment — it failed.
Q. So what should be done?
A. It’s not the glamorous, headline-making work, it’s the day-to-day examination, combing through and interrogating things that people have just assumed were the only way things could be done.
Ms. Hill then ticked off a list of what needed to change:
• A process of reporting harassment where it is clear to every employee where to turn and how they will hear about the outcome. Those will have to be public, even though companies cite employee privacy, to build trust and prevent violators from being passed off to other workplaces.
• Investigations that are independent, often by third parties, particularly if the accused are senior executives or rainmakers.
• Training that includes implicit bias coupled with bystander training, creating a workplace culture where everyone feels responsible for calling out harassment.
• Preventing the retaliation that now hounds the majority of those who complain.
• Leaders who publicly commit to fighting harassment and creating a diverse workplace.
Q. Do you see a backlash against #MeToo from women as well as men?
A. We are just wedded to a culture of accepting this behavior, not being willing to make the tough calls and stick with them. There are very few problems where we make rules based on the possibility of false accusations. If we paid more attention to that in this society we wouldn’t have the death penalty.
The bigger problem is not false accusations. The bigger problem is the harassment. I agree that everyone in a fair process has a right to be heard, whether accuser or accused. What I cannot accept is the notion that many people have that women cannot be trusted to tell the truth about these violations.
Q. Will Dr. Ford’s experience deter other women from coming forward?
A. I have only one experience to base this on, but it was a pretty egregious and horrific process. And yet women said, ‘I didn’t even know I had this right. I’m not going to suffer in silence.’ I do think there will be more people coming forward. So I think it could have the same kind of countereffect that it did.
Q. Are you in touch with Dr. Ford?
A: I am. I’ll just leave it at that.
Q. Is it comforting for her?
A. I hope so. I know how important it was for me.
Q. When you look at the government, there are now two justices who were accused of sexual harassment (both of whom deny the accusations) and a president who boasted on tape of being entitled to grab women. How do you assess this?
A. They sort of feed each other. The Senate supports the compromising of the Supreme Court. The president compromises the presidency. The legislative bodies that support him or don’t call him out are enabling him to make comments that suggest he believes that he is entitled to be abusive to whomever he wants. And we should have known that eventually it would get to the courts, too. How it compromises the legal system — as a lawyer, that is so deeply troubling to me.
I will say this, too. The notion that Susan Collins [the senator from Maine] spread about the burden of proof, innocent until proven guilty and applying it to a Judiciary Committee proceeding, a political proceeding, compromised our legal standards. The legal standard is a high principle of our legal system, a start to protecting us against wrongful convictions. It should not be denigrated or used to cover political choices.
But I’m ever hopeful. Political bodies change, leadership changes, people can make better choices.
Q. You’re hopeful?
A. I’m not sure if I’m optimistic, pessimistic, or pragmatic. It has to do with my whole background. My parents were born in 1911 and 1912. My mother lived into her 90s, my father until his 80s. I measure change by what happened in their lifetimes. My grandfather was a slave, certainly his mother was a slave. I’m only two generations at most from slavery. I think I have the right to be hopeful. Because I see how far we’ve come. I’m very clearheaded about how far we have to go.