It’s been 26 years since Anita Hill very publicly accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, but the recent allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein that have snowballed in recent weeks don’t appear to surprise her.
Hill, now a law professor at Brandeis, appeared on CNN Wednesday morning to comment on the many allegations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein.
“The details are clearly shocking. But the behavior itself is not surprising because I have heard from women, thousands of them over the past 26 years about behavior of this kind that they endured,” Hill told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.
She added that media coverage had helped raise awareness of a real problem that has plagued women for decades, by uplifting the voices of women who have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment and forcing others to take their accusations seriously.
“I have to give the media credit because you stuck with the story and you moved beyond the old questions like, ‘why don’t women come forward or why didn’t they speak up sooner?'” she said. “I think by digging deeper we have gotten to the bottom of that question and gotten answers that it’s dangerous to actually come forward, even today.”
Hill cautioned, however, that the country must reconcile with the fact that those who refuse to listen to the voices of sexually harassed women help sustain this kind of misconduct, as they have since she spoke out against it in 1991.
During her original testimony, during which she claimed Thomas — previously her supervisor at the Department of Education and the EEOC — sexually harassed her, Hill was lambasted by Republican and Democratic senators alike (all of them white) for not coming forward sooner with her accusations. One senator in particular, Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY), was particularly tough on her.
“If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name, when he left his position of power or status or authority over you, and you left it in 1983, why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?” he asked.
Hill explained that she was terrified of how it would impact her professional life, which isn’t atypical for victims of sexual harassment.
Such is the case with Harvey Weinstein, whose contract reportedly included a clause that would allow him to pay his way out of any allegations via settlements, should any accusations of sexual harassment be made against him, leaving his alleged victims in a tenuous situation.
But the problem is systemic. At the Weinstein Company, the board allegedly turned “a blind eye to what were some real red flags.” Weinstein’s sexual misconduct was even a popular Hollywood joke embedded in pop culture, still nothing came of it until women began speaking out.
On Wednesday, Hill posed that situation to viewers and asked a sobering question: how far do we still have to go to reach real equality?
“How close are we, if, in fact, women are having to endure this kind of behavior in the day-to-day lives in the workplace and on the streets?” she asked. “And if we ask ourselves that question, we need to also ask today for our leadership, whether it’s in the public or private sector to step up and tell us what they are going to do to stop the problem.”
There may be a light at the end of the tunnel. While Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court, despite the allegations Hill made against him all those years ago, Weinstein was forced to resign from the board of his own company. His wife is divorcing him and his brother, now facing his own accusations, is aggressively distancing himself. Most of Weinstein’s former colleagues have come forward with statements about how they, both fathers of daughters and non-fathers of not-daughters, find his allegedly predatory behavior repulsive.
It isn’t enough to just reprimand abusers only after the history of their misconduct is found out, of course. An estimated one in four women in the United States has experienced sexual harassment at some point at her place of work. But many people — especially men — who have never and may never experience this kind of harassment are more likely to think nothing of it. While 64 percent of the general public says that sexual harassment is a big problem in the U.S., that number jumps to 88 percent among the women who have actually been forced to experience it.
Hill was right — there’s still a lot of work to be done before equality is achieved. But for the moment, any small win is important.