From Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas to Gretchen Carlson, Roger Ailes: Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone

November 20, 2016

Sexual Harassment at Work

Mention sexual harassment to anyone of news-viewing age in the 1990s and few names spring to mind faster than Anita Hill or Clarence Thomas. The phrase “sexual harassment” was first coined by journalist and Cornell lecturer, Lin Farley, as a succinct description of the unwelcome, insidious behavior women experienced in male-dominated work environments. However, the phrase – and its meaning – didn’t come to national prominence until 1991 – the year Clarence Thomas was nominated to the United States Supreme Court.

Thomas’s confirmation hearings focused intensely and dramatically upon the allegations of Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexually harassing her while she worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – the body charged with enforcing the rules prohibiting workplace discrimination. Thomas was its Chairman.

The televised hearing process had fallout beyond anything within the realm of the imaginations of the all-male, all-white senators conducting the hearings. Both Hill and Thomas gave passionate, and largely consistent (but wholly irreconcilable) testimony – Thomas emphatically and categorically denying Hill’s allegations, and Hill giving articulate, measured and detailed accounts of what she experienced – yet the hearings yielded no clear “truth”. This left many with gnawing doubts and bitter feelings.

However, the hearings did yield a handful of important changes for women. Representation of women in the United States Congress increased. Then-President George H.W. Bush signed a law that made it easier for sexual harassment victims to sue their victimizers. Still, twenty five years later, one question lingers: What was Anita Hill’s lasting impact on sexual harassment law?

Some argue that the true impact of Anita Hill’s allegations against Thomas was to reinforce women’s already well-founded fears that reporting sexual harassment leads to retaliation. After all, Thomas’s hearings ended with his lifetime appointment to one of the most influential positions of government. For Hill, it ended with a lifetime of criticism, threats, doubt, and continued harassment. Although reports of sexual harassment increased in the immediate aftermath of the confirmation hearings, a report recently produced by the EEOC found that not reporting sexual harassment in the workplace is still – nearly three decades later – a “reasonable response” because so many women experience retaliation.

The recent parade of high-profile figures such as Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, and Isaiah Thomas alleged acts of sexual harassment demonstrate how this persistent fear of retaliation – professional, economic, emotional, social – continues to enable powerful business leaders years-long campaigns of sexual harassment against their less-powerful victims.

This reality has driven some to assert that Anita Hill’s legacy is better understood as having perpetuated a culture of harassment as opposed to having lessened it. America had a front-row seat during Thomas’s confirmation hearings as Anita Hill was asked over and over again why she didn’t stop Thomas’s alleged behavior and why she didn’t leave her career to get away from it. It’s not difficult to imagine how watching that would inspire far more women into silence versus action. And that silence (founded in fear) is perhaps the greatest enabler of a continued pattern of workplace harassment.

And so it was that a lawsuit was filed against Roger Ailes, alleging decades of sexual harassment. Ailes’s alleged treatment of women in the workplace came to light when former Fox anchor, Gretchen Carlson, filed a lawsuit against Ailes, seeking damages for enduring a career’s worth of work in a pervasively sexist atmosphere. Carlson filed her suit when she had little left to lose. Her contract with Fox had ended – and that circumstance was quickly leveraged as evidence that her suit was motivated by something other than the truth of its allegations.

Ultimately, though, Ms. Carlson’s suit settled. Author Gabriel Sherman (who previously wrote about Ailes and the rise of Fox News) observed: “… this is a culture where women felt pressured to participate in sexual activity with their superiors if they wanted to advance inside the company. And it was so … explicit … there was no subtext. There was no subtlety to it. It was just there. This is what women who worked there had to endure for the last 20 years.”

We may have learned from the Thomas/Hill experience about the existence and definition of sexual harassment. But we have much yet to learn about its prevention and about how to guide those who experience sexual harassment through its aftermath. As Justice Brandeis long ago observed, s”unshine is indeed a disinfectant”. But whether it is the best disinfectant depends entirely upon whether we continue to clean up the mess we’ve left behind.

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