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Nearly 25 years after Anita Hill accused her former boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of making lewd advances, the fight against sexual harassment is again in the spotlight.
Women have pushed to change policies at colleges across the country. Bill Cosby — once a beloved figure of American culture — is now widely reviled because of accusations of rape and assault. More recently, more than 20 women say media mogul Roger Ailes harassed them at work.
It’s a familiar pattern: accusations of powerful men using their positions of authority to take advantage of younger women.
Anita Hill was one of the first to capture that narrative in her testimony on Capitol Hill in 1991. She accused Thomas of sexual harassment. He denied all wrongdoing. She was ostracized.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” Hill tells Morning Edition‘s Steve Inskeep. “It is now part of the public conversation.”
Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University, says that while women have fought sexual harassment cases in court and won, “even among women who seem very powerful in their jobs and in the public eye, these problems exist and they don’t come forward necessarily.”
On how sexual harassment became part of the public conversation
In 1991, people started talking publicly about it. Women as well as men started talking about what they had experienced in the workplace, what they had witnessed in the workplace, and I think it changed the public perception of women who had been brave enough to step up and come forward and it exposed a lot of the ways of trashing women that are routinely done when women do come forward.
On how recent stories about accusations of sexual harassment have changed consciousness
I think it makes clear that even though the men are more powerful, even women who are perceived to have some power have trouble coming forward. But I also think that it makes people aware that how in these situations where there is extreme hierarchy and you have an individual who is well-regarded on many levels, that it is very difficult for women to come forward because in many ways they don’t have anyone to report to who can actually do anything about it, who can change the behavior of this powerful person.
I’m talking about companies where you do have this fairly iconic figure and companies are prohibited from stepping outside the chain of command, even talk to people who are above them in rank.
On what she would have employers do about this issue that they’re not doing
One thing I would have the Fox News network do is to take back the $40 million [severance package] that Roger Ailes reportedly has received.
It seems to me that that sends a very bad signal and in fact if the allegations are proven to be true, then certainly not only has he violated the law but I would also say that he has actually injured the company in a way that would keep him from being entitled to a severance pay.
On what this moment means for women who face sexual harassment
When we look at this moment in time, one of the things that we need to understand is that whether this in fact moves us any further depends on a number of factors. One of the factors is how victims relate to examples of women coming forward. How do they feel they are going to be evaluated or the truthfulness of the allegations, how are those going to be evaluated.
We also need to look at how different women are evaluated. It may be women are evaluated differently because of their race or religion, status in the workplace. There are a whole lot of things that go into the mix.
But one thing that I am very sure of is if we look at 1991 and think about what happened, even though from the outside observer it seemed that in fact I’d lost, I was treated very badly, women continued to come forward and they came forward in record numbers. And that I believe is a good sign.
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