The fight against sexual harassment isn’t nearly over, says Anita Hill

Peter Salovey and Anita Hill.
(Photo by Mara Lavitt)

After she testified before Congress in 1991 alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Anita Hill ’80 J.D. heard from many people who told her that they didn’t even know that sexual harassment was against the law, she recalled during a campus talk on Oct. 30.

Hill took part in a conversation with President Peter Salovey in the School of Management’s Zhang Auditorium as part of the President’s Women of Yale Lecture Series. The ticketed-only event, which was sold out, was the third in the series, which brings to campus prominent alumnae — in celebration of the 50th year of co-education at Yale College in 2019 — to highlight their contributions to society.

Hill is credited for helping to bring the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace into public consciousness through her testimony, but acknowledges that today, many college-aged people do not know who she is.

While her testimony helped many other women come forward in the 1990s about their own experience of sexual harassment, and a generation of women who are aware that its is illegal has now reached adulthood, Hill said the fight against such behavior is far from over.

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of women have been sharing their own experiences on social media with the hashtag “#MeToo” in response to allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but Hill said that it would be a mistake to think that this case — like her own — will decisively put an end to such behavior.

There’s no one magic potion of one incident or one example,” said Hill, who is the University Professor of Law, Public Policy, and Women’s Studies in the Heller Graduate School of Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She also advises on class action workplace discrimination cases as counsel to the law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll in Washington, D.C.

In fact, she said, she worries that too great a focus on Weinstein’s case, in which many of his accusers are Hollywood actresses, might “balkanize” that behavior.

It’s important not just to look at sexual harassment of women in Hollywood, she said, but also to recognize that it happens to “the women waiting on tables in the restaurants you go to, or women in factory lines, or women throughout employment,” she told her audience.

I would argue against even trying to make Harvey Weinstein into the case that turns everything around, unless … it’s the case that allows us to see all other forms of gendered violence and abuse,” she said. “If we look at it that way, as one example that opens our eyes to what [has been] going on historically and is today in so many places with so many people, then I think we can make some advances. But even then, I don’t want people to give up and say, ‘I thought Harvey Weinstein will do it all.’”

She added, “We have to continue to be vigilant and still have to look for new ways to really get to people’s lived experiences in order to actually put an end to sexual harassment. It’s not going to be over. If you start to look at Harvey Weinstein, then okay, fire Harvey Weinstein … but then you leave a lot of people in a lot of places stranded. We’ve got a whole lot to learn, but we shouldn’t think that this is the end.”

Hill said that the fact so many women were unaware that they had legal recourse against sexual harassment in the workplace in the early 1990s was “the real shame of the legal profession.” Today, she said, people telling their stories of harassment get far more attention from the press, which, she claimed, has “gotten better,” since she shared her own experience of harassment while working with Thomas at the U.S. Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Then and since, she said, many people have raised the question: “Why don’t women come forward?” to report sexual harassment. She said the answer is “because they get bruised and battered and re-injured in coming forward.”

Hill said that we are now moving beyond that question to focus on “the structures and systems that enable” sexual harassment.

That is a breakthrough — to have the public discussion not be about why don’t women come forward but how do you get away with it — in the Weinstein case, for three decades?

I use Weinstein as a case study, but in other places outside of Hollywood you will find Harvey Weinsteins,” she said, noting that there are many companies in which non-disclosure contracts serve as “gag orders” that prevent employees from being able to talk about sexual harassment settlements, as well as arbitration clauses that prevent them from filing claims. She added that in the academy, it is not uncommon for those who have been accused of sexual harassment to be secretly punished but then moved to another position in the organization.

So what you’ve got is this first layer of protection that kind of sets up a shield around the harasser that allows them to continue,” said Hill. In the cases of such public personalities as Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby, she said, there is also a “secondary layer of protection” — the “stamp of approval” they receive when given awards and other forms of acknowledgement.

One of the questions we have to ask ourselves is: Are we enablers? Are we participating when we ignore these stories we’ve heard about people and then give them these awards? In a sense, we give them a cover for bad behavior.”

Asked by Salovey how she mustered the courage to come forward with her own story, knowing that she would be met with hostility by some, Hill said that she knew she had the support of her family and many colleagues at the University of Oklahoma College of Law where she then taught, as well as former teachers and friends at the Yale Law School.

Beyond that, I was a law teacher, telling students every year that this [the court] was a system you want to believe in and value, and for me, the integrity of the court was at stake. A profession is only as sound as its highest representatives, and so that’s what I was thinking of,” she said, later adding, “I wasn’t really thinking this was a brave thing to do, but was thinking it was the right thing to do, and so that’s how I managed to do it.”

She said that to raise public consciousness, “one of the best things that can happen is for people to tell their stories [of sexual harassment or abuse] to people who care about them and who they care about.”

Hill praised the legal contributions of several Yale Law School graduates or faculty members who have helped formulate the legal framework for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace or on college campuses, among them Eleanor Holmes Norton ’64 J.D., Catharine MacKinnon ’77 J.D., and Catherine Lhamon ’96 J.D.

Women of Yale Law School have actually had real impact,” she said. “They made the idea of sexual harassment something really tangible and real.”

She also noted the contributions of Yale Law School graduate Pauli Murray ’65 J.S.D. (for whom one of Yale’s newest residential colleges was named) to the civil rights and women’s movements. Murray, Hill said, does not get the credit she deserves for her work.

She was incredibly inquisitive and questioned the ways things are. … She had the kind of mind that pushed everything,” said Hill.

Hill discussed with Salovey her recent op-ed piece for The New York Times about the pay and promotion gap for women in the tech industry, noting that women under the age of 25 in the industry earn 29% less than their male counterparts. She said this is concerning given that executives in that industry represent a young generation of company leaders.

We ought to be looking with scrutiny at Silicon Valley,” said Hill. “What is the culture that’s creating this [pay and equity gap]?”

As a professor and public speaker, however, Hill said that she is optimistic about the future because of the student activism that she sees on college campuses, including their calls for racial inclusion.

Universities are really traditional places,” she said. “These young people are challenging these traditions that have outlived their usefulness, in my mind. … It’s difficult to make change.” She added that she hopes that they will carry their spirit of activism beyond the campus and into the larger world without caving in to the status quo.

Asked by a student in the audience if the law and public policy can achieve idealistic aims, Hill said that she has not lost her faith in the legal or political process.

We talk in this country about justice; we talk about equality,” she said. “Sometimes the law gets co-opted for other purposes. We’ve seen that very recently. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw away the law. It’s an ongoing struggle. … Every time there’s a movement forward, there will be people who are going to resist it. We have to be vigilant and try to keep law moving in the right direction. … We have to be imaginative, ever curious, like Pauli Murray.  … As long as we keep pushing, keep imagining, and as long as we keep enlarging our sense of what justice is, law will always play an important role.”

The entire conversation between Salovey and Hill can be viewed on Yale's YouTube channel.

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