The “Anita Hill Effect”

In 1991, Anita Hill became a national figure when she accused a U.S. Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment. The power of her testimony: calm, measured, rational – remains with us today. Emma Gray writes for The Huffington Post. 


Anita Faye Hill (born July 30, 1956) is an American attorney and academic. She is a University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University and a faculty member of Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management. She became a national figure in 1991 when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her boss at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of sexual harassment.

Her hearing was broadcast on live TV for three days. The ‘Anita Hill effect’, as it later came to be called, was stunning.

A single black woman testifying against an all-male, all-white panel.

For three days, millions of Americans heard Hill describe the sexually explicit comments she was subjected to in the workplace. The hearings brought to public attention the widespread issue of sexual harassment — and signaled just how ill-equipped a Senate almost exclusively made up of white men was to deal with it.

Hill’s impact was tangible. Her testimony set off a greater national understanding of what sexual harassment looks like in the workplace, pushing employers to institute trainings on the subject. In 1991, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, where Hill had worked under Thomas) reported 3,349 charges filed alleging sexual harassment. In 1992, that number shot up to 5,607.

The stark image of Hill being harangued by a panel of white men also helped usher in the “Year of the Woman.” In 1992, four women were elected to the Senate, bringing the grand total to a (sadly historical) six, and the number of women in the House rose from 28 to 47. The ranks of women in both the House and Senate have continued to grow, though today women still make up just 19.4 percent of Congress.

“I would not be a United States Senator today if it weren’t for the courage of Anita Hill,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was a Congresswoman in 1991 and was elected to the Senate in 1992, told The Huffington Post.

“[Hill’s testimony] was one of those incredible change moments for an awful lot of women who sat there and said, ‘Wait a minute — all these progressive men on this panel are just sitting there sucking their thumbs!,’” said former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who, along with Boxer, charged up to the Senate to demand her male colleagues take Hill’s allegations seriously.

[…]

Hill was also torn apart by elements of the press and general public. Pundit David Brock infamously described Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little slutty.” And as Hill told the NYTimes in October 1991, she faced consistent harassment as a result of her testimony:

I think that it is very difficult for a number of males to see that [sexual harassment] is a real issue. And let me tell you about a phone call I had right before I got here. I had a call from a male who identified himself by name, and also identified himself as associated with a national organization, a civil rights organization, and he said to me that Clarence Thomas was only acting the way any man would act with a woman.

…I have received other harassing phone calls, mostly they’re messages on my machine where males have made jokes about this, and then that one unfortunate call where an individual was very forceful that this was only normal male behavior, which I think insults all of you men in the room.

Sources: Wikipedia, Huffington Post

Featured Image: Slate

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