Anita Hill cut path to #MeToo as barriers persist 30 years later

Anita Hill said the legal concept of “sexual harassment” was not widely understood, before testifying before an all-male Senate committee in 1991 that Clarence thomas repeatedly made inappropriate comments and forced her to date him while he was his boss.

Hill’s testimony did not stop Thomas from confirming to the U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago, but it did help raise awareness of pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace, prompting more women to come forward. protest and resulted in federal policy changes.

“She lit a light, we saw a lightning bolt, and for 30 years we have seen discrimination continue at home and in the justice system,” said Justine Andronici, a Pennsylvania-based lawyer who represents plaintiffs for sexual harassment. “We are still grappling with the challenges that she helped us see.”

Many legal and systemic hurdles remain in place, even with the widespread attention given to the problem by the #MeToo movement, according to academics, lawyers and labor lawyers.

“There is no easy solution to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace or other forms of gender-based violence,” Hill writes in his latest book, “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence” . “The responses from the courts do not measure up to the reality and gravity of the problem. ”

Hill, currently a law professor at Brandeis University, claimed at the time that as chairman of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas discussed sex, pornography and the female breast size. She also said she feared he would retaliate against her for her persistent advances. Thomas has denied the allegations.

Hill’s allegations against Thomas came just a few years after the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sexual harassment should be considered illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Her testimony raised ideas about the fear of retaliation and the power dynamics that allow harassment to continue, which have been at the heart of accusations against powerful figures in recent years. It also reflected subsequent testimony against another Supreme Court candidate, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was also confirmed in 2018 after a high school acquaintance testified that he assaulted her at a party when they were both teenagers.

Hill says in his book that many current approaches don’t work and shift the responsibility for ending the problem to leaders.

“For example, insist that survivors and victims can control bad behavior by standing up to their abusers, telling them that their problems will be resolved if they arise in processes that are opposed to them and by doing so. committing to getting rid of a few bad apples are all forms of denial, none of which has been an effective solution, ”she said.

Training effects

After Anita Hill’s testimony, there was a slight increase in sexual harassment charges filed and changes to civil rights laws, including updating the damages available to accusers, Fatima Goss said. Graves, President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.

“You can’t look at the past three decades and not see a cultural movement or changes in the laws, but I remember the deep and important work that remains,” Graves said.

Businesses, federal and state agencies, and lawmakers have attempted to tackle workplace harassment. In recent years, states have passed pay equity laws, limiting nondisclosure and arbitration agreements, and relaxing legal standards.

Under Title VII, workers must prove that the harassment they faced was serious or widespread, making it difficult for accusers to prevail in court, according to labor lawyers. In addition, independent contractors are excluded from these legal protections and employers with 15 or fewer employees are not covered. A damage limit of $ 300,000 has remained stagnant.

Arbitration and nondisclosure agreements can keep cases and charges out of public view, and advocates have said such contracts can perpetuate harassment.

“The stakes for an individual to raise a harassment issue are very high,” Graves said. “Basically, your willingness to come forward is likely to change your life forever, and it’s not something everyone wants. We should have a built-in process so you don’t have to be a public figure to name a harassment issue.

Many companies, however, have updated their internal reporting and investigation processes, in response to the #MeToo movement, said Debra Katz, a Washington, DC-based civil rights lawyer who has represented accusers in cases. high-profile cases, including against the former New York Governor. Andrew Cuomo and Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. She also represented Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, ahead of her confirmation hearings.

She also said that the New York Attorney General’s investigation into the harassment allegations against Cuomo provided an example of progress, including that women were able to support the claims of others that demonstrated an alleged pattern.

“We have seen powerful people being fired for this kind of behavior. It sends a strong message to businesses and employers, ”Katz said.

Federal law

Federal law and court precedents always create obstacles for accusers, said Carrie Baker, a law professor at Smith College, who teaches sexual harassment.

“Social change happens slowly, sexism and racism are ingrained in social behavior,” Baker said. “The law is weak and the courts make the law. ”

Cynthia Grant Bowman, a Cornell University law professor who specializes in feminist legal studies, remembers telling audiences on television in 1991 what sexual harassment was after Hill’s revelation.

She said there had been positive ripple effects and the timing had led to many complaints. It has become more common to discuss the harassment law, which gives women a better idea of ​​what they should and should not tolerate, Bowman added.

But the harassment continues, she said, “From everyday stuff to structural stuff. “

“The changes in the law haven’t really helped. It requires a huge culture change and an understanding of the relationship between the sexes, ”Bowman said. “Ultimately, it strikes me that there is a lot of misogyny out there. It is a deep tension that is often impervious to legal recourse.

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