Anita Hill’s Impact On Today’s Sexual Assault Discourse

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(Greg Gibson/AP)

Pioneers are rarely the most celebrated people. 16-year-old Claudette Colvin’s bus seat protest is nowhere near as historic as Rosa Parks’. We give Drake more credit for popularizing the blend of singing and rapping in hip-hop than Kanye West, Bone Thugs, or Lauryn Hill. To be fair, someone has to take a movement to its peak level. But forgetting the origin stories of a progressive movement is the quickest way to take it for granted and take the momentum out of its sails.

The wave of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein has done a lot for the fight against sexual assault, particularly in the workplace. The Weinstein allegations are responsible for the subsequent “Weinstein effect“—the current phenomenon of sexual harassment and assault allegations against celebrities triggering public responses from companies and institutions. This, “immediate ‘national reckoning’ against sexual abuse,” as described on Wikipedia, is the largest discourse about sexual abuse the United States have ever experienced. But today’s consensus definition, understanding, and language of sexual abuse in the workplace is the result of important work done decades prior to all of this.

Let’s talk about Anita Hill.

In 1991, Anita Hill testified in front of an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee regarding sexual harassment she claimed to have experienced from Clarence Thomas, her former employer. Clarence Thomas was a Supreme Court nominee at the time, and despite the testimony, was confirmed as a Justice. But even if Hill’s efforts didn’t result in justice for the crimes she was a victim of, they did a lot to elevate the general conversation about sexual abuse.

Even your beloved Joe Biden pushed back against Anita Hill’s testimony (Greg Gibson/Associated Press)

For one, sexual harassment as a term didn’t even exist in the English lexicon until a group of women at Cornell University coined it in 1975. Even then, it didn’t enter everyday language for a while. The scope of the term’s meaning and use were still unfamiliar to the average American household. But the media attention Anita Hill’s testimony received was the beacon for many researchers and unsupported victims of such behavior to rally around.

The victims of commonplace injustice rarely have the language to describe their experience because it’s meant to be normal, accepted even. In an anecdote about the weight of Hill’s testimony, a woman named Jaclyn Friedman said the best advice her mom could give her about dealing with a creepy boss prior to the Hill testimony was to “do her best” to avoid situations. There was no way to describe an employer calling a female employee into his office to “talk” as criminal activity because it was simply how things were.

In the same way the popularization of terms like redlining, profiling, and codeswitching have given young people of color language to describe longstanding racial injustices that we’ve deemed normal, Hill’s bravery in simply calling Clarence Thomas’ behavior harmful made people question if “normal” male behavior was really normal.

The men of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote Hill off as a vindictive woman trying to bring a good man down. But she wasn’t running a smear campaign. Hill was using her unsettling experience to make people see that sort of behavior from her perspective. Her singular voice helped people better understand the experience of millions of aspirational women and girls that go to work and get preyed upon, disrespected, and assaulted by men in positions of power.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Center (EEOC)—Hill’s former place of employment under Thomas—received double the amount of sexual harassment complaints in the five years after Anita Hill’s testimony. Today, we have more than just one brave woman to look up to for rooting out this deep-seated problem.

We can all admire Ellen Pao, Rose McGowan, Kesha, and other high-profile women that have found the courage to speak up against sexual harassment and assault. While there’s plenty of work to do, we can also acknowledge what was done in the past to push us forward.

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