(Corrects date and details of a court dismissal in 11th paragraph)
Oct. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Anita Hill sits at a tiny conference table in her office at Brandeis University, just outside Boston, as I quiz her on the obvious themes. Her testimony during hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court? Admittedly a “terrible” experience, “but I want people to understand that I survived it.” Attacks on her character? A good thing for women in the workplace because now “they know what to expect” should they ever go public about harassment.
Her sex-harassment claim stirred up the dregs of America. Hill got threats of murder, rape and sodomy on her answering machine. David Brock, a best-selling author, declared her to be “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” only to recant that and other attacks years later. Yet Hill shows no bitterness, and exploits no opportunities to take a swipe at any of the people who turned her harassment complaint into a reason to assail her.
And today, she has a new cause. In a book released this week, “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home,” Hill says women, particularly single heads of households, face a new setback: Just as they were gaining social and economic independence by purchasing homes in increasing numbers, they were upended by the crash in housing prices.
Young women entering the workforce for the first time may not even know her name, says Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. “But Anita Hill shaped their lives in ways they don’t understand.”
Coke Can Incident
It was just shy of 20 years ago, on Oct. 11, 1991, when Hill riveted American television viewers and set off battles of the sexes at many a company water cooler. Then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, she had worked for Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She alleged before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had spoken to her about explicit sex videos he had watched, and once asked in her presence while at work, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” At the hearings, and 16 years later in his autobiography, Thomas denied her accusations.
Let me say upfront that I have concluded over the years that Hill, not Thomas, was the credible one in this sorry tale. I base that opinion, above all, on the work of journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, whose 1994 book, “Strange Justice,” offered extensive support for Hill’s accusations, including on- the-record comments from Thomas’s former classmates, who found Hill’s description of the sexual banter to be in sync with the man they knew. Mayer writes for the New Yorker. Abramson last month became executive editor of the New York Times.
Kathy Arberg, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said Thomas declined to comment for this article.
Touched a Nerve
You may not agree with my take on what happened between the man who now sits on the Supreme Court -- ruling this year against women in a historic sex-discrimination case, no less, involving Wal-Mart Stores Inc. -- and the woman who today teaches courses including “Race and the Law” on a bucolic New England campus. But it’s hard to argue against this: Hill’s testimony touched a nerve with working women in America.
Even Hill was taken aback. “What then came for me was a surprise, and that is that my testimony started something else. It started individuals talking about sexual harassment; not only were they talking about it in ways they had never talked about it before, but they were talking about it. Just the fact that we were talking about it and we weren’t carrying around this shame about ‘Well, we were not tough enough if we admitted it bothered us.’ That was a change because we were always told ‘Just keep your mouth shut and just suck it up.’”
Williams, the law professor, sensed the same historic shift in attitudes. “There was a common understanding that if you couldn’t handle harassment, you were kind of a wimp and probably didn’t deserve the job anyway,” she says. “Then came Anita Hill and all of a sudden there was a whiff of liability, and the cultural environment changed forever.” I read those words to Hill. “You know, I hope it changed forever,” she says.
It did. The Civil Rights Act of 1991, which for the first time gave employees filing a federal lawsuit the right to a jury trial and the chance to win damages for emotional distress, was signed into law five weeks after Thomas’s confirmation. Hill initially worried that the raking-over she got from critics would dissuade women from speaking up, but the opposite happened. Her testimony, combined with the new law, led to a surge of complaints, says Elizabeth Grossman, the regional attorney in the New York district office of the EEOC. (In August, a claim alleging a pattern of gender discrimination, part of a lawsuit brought by Grossman’s office against Bloomberg LP, was dismissed in a New York federal court.) “She brought a consciousness to many people and different employers in our society and got people talking about the issues,” Grossman says.
Constructive as that outcome was, it wasn’t what motivated Hill to recount so publicly the incidents of a boss who she says asked her out on dates and talked about “very vivid” pornography. It was about “whether Thomas, who was being considered for a lifetime appointment, was fit for the position,” she told me.
The Coke-can incident allegedly occurred in the offices of the EEOC, of all places. So the obvious question to Hill was whether a man who hits on a female employee and dishes talk about videos of oversize male sex organs had the appropriate “respect for the law” that a Supreme Court appointment calls for. Would she go through it all again knowing how hard it would be? “Oh yeah, yes,” she says. “The issues to me are so clear. This was about the integrity of the court.”
Magnet for Controversy
Despite Hill’s claims, Thomas squeaked by and was confirmed by a 52-48 Senate vote. He remains a magnet for controversy. Twenty Democratic House members on Sept. 29 asked the U.S. Judicial Conference, which oversees federal courts, to investigate the fact that he did not disclose almost $700,000 of his wife Virginia Thomas’s income from 2003 to 2007.
In a separate public-relations flare-up a year ago, Virginia Thomas delivered this contender for world’s weirdest voice message: On Hill’s phone at Brandeis, she suggested Hill apologize for “what you did with my husband.”
Much has gone right for women in the workplace since Hill spoke up. It would be tough to find a large U.S. company today that didn’t train employees on workplace-harassment issues, Grossman says. “It can be window dressing,” she says, but done right, harassment training can help companies decrease turnover rates, build morale and lower absenteeism. There’s also no question that women entering the workplace today have less to fear.
‘Ugly Out There’
Ironically, or some might say predictably, much has also gone dreadfully wrong, thanks to court rulings in which Thomas played a part. “Civil-rights laws are being undermined by the U.S. Supreme Court,” says Cliff Palefsky, a San Francisco-based employment lawyer. “It’s really, really ugly out there.”
Two decisions supported by Thomas this year could undo some of the post-Anita Hill progress by stifling the single-most- powerful weapon against workplace discrimination: the class- action lawsuit. The June 20 decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes torpedoed a class-action discrimination case that would have included 1.5 million women. Employees looking to bring large cases in the future will have a tougher time of it.
And an April 27 ruling in a case called AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion said consumers who signed the company’s customer agreement could neither sue individually nor pursue a class- action suit. The fear is that the Concepcion case opens a door for employers to require employees to sign agreements that similarly take away an individual’s right to sue while also shutting down employees’ ability to join co-workers in a class.
The decisions come at a vulnerable time for women. “I look at the growing number of women who were in the housing market” in the previous decade, Hill says. Buying a home was “not only a statement about their economic independence, but also a statement about their social independence. Because remember, single women weren’t supposed to be homeowners; they were supposed to wait until they were maaaa-rried,” -- she says the word in a sing-songy voice -- “and then they were supposed to have the big house and the children, and women, we were rejecting that, only to get slapped by these, in many cases, toxic loan instruments.”
The Consumer Federation of America expressed concern in a 2006 study that a lopsided share of subprime mortgages was going to single women. One in five homebuyers in 2003 was a single female, the study noted, up from one in 10 in 1991. But as women were stepping up their home purchases, they were being steered to mortgages with onerous conditions. Black and Latino women were much more likely to wind up with a subprime mortgage than were white men with similar incomes.
While women confront these new obstacles, some of them still make the morning commute to jobs where old problems continue. Things are better, but “we’re still bringing the same old sex-harassment cases where the boss is grabbing people’s breasts and rear ends, and threatening to fire them if they don’t submit to advances,” Grossman says.
Discouraging? Hill offers some perspective. “I don’t think we’ve gotten it right. As much progress as we’ve made socially, I’m not satisfied that it’s over, that the battle is won and that we can just brush our hands and say ‘lets move on to other issues,’” Hill says. “It’s been 20 years, but what we are talking about is changing centuries of behavior.”
(Susan Antilla, who has written about Wall Street and business for three decades and is the author of “Tales From the Boom-Boom Room,” a book about sexual harassment at financial companies, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
--Editors: Paula Dwyer, David Henry.
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