In 1991, Anita Hill was thrust into the national spotlight when she accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the United States Dept. of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Since that time, Hill has brought attention to issues of race, gender and workplace discrimination as a professor of law, public policy and women’s studies at Brandeis University, and as an adviser to the Civil Rights & Employment practice at the law firm of Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll. She spoke with Variety about the sexual harassment scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein.
Successful men do harass. They act in ways that are abusive and sometimes illegal. Too many of us are under the impression that the people who do this are losers, and that’s not the case. Liberal men, high-achieving men, educated men, men who claim to support women, can be harassers. Maybe that will help change people’s minds about what’s happening in their own community, their own workplace and their own campus. It may not be Harvey Weinstein doing these things, but it may be someone like Harvey Weinstein, who is prominent and progressive, who is abusing women.
There’s a myth that sexual harassment is something that happens just with Republicans instead of Democrats. People weren’t surprised that Roger Ailes harassed because Roger Ailes is conservative. When a conservative harasses or engages in misconduct, the thinking is that they’re being hypocritical. They’re the ones who tell us harassment doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s not a big problem. When liberals harass, I think there’s a sense of betrayal, because they’re the ones who are saying we believe in women’s equality. There’s a different emotional reaction, but it’s still painful and it’s still difficult for women to come forward. It doesn’t matter who’s doing it.
When we put harassers in a political category, we’re doing that based on a failure to look at the reality of harassment. One of the paradoxes is that very liberal industries like entertainment, like tech, are still producing or reproducing the same types of behavior that have been going on in more traditional settings all along.
I do believe that people can change their behavior, but I think that after 30 years, you don’t get a chance to change and pretend it didn’t happen. Harvey Weinstein’s behavior continued beyond the ’60s and ’70s, so when he says, “I came of age in that era,” it is no excuse.
We’re always saying why aren’t women coming forward? Harassment is harmful; it’s hurtful. It can cause physical injury, emotional injury and certainly economic injury.
Like so many businesses, in the entertainment business, there are people who are powerful and can influence your career. There’s a question of whether or not you want to take a risk with your entire career by coming forward against this very powerful man.
There’s also a concern that this is what you’re going to be measured by for your entire life. I certainly have that concern, and I live it. But knowing that is the reality, how do you manage it? It’s a choice that I made, but every person has to handle that question in his or her own way. You don’t want to have this become you or your brand. In some ways, the higher the profile of the person you’re accusing is, the more likely that is to happen.
There are more people willing to come forward now. There’s obviously strength in numbers. We have to deal with this as a society. It’s a legal issue, but it’s also a social and cultural issue that we still haven’t figured out. Even as late as 1991, people didn’t talk about this kind of behavior to their closest relatives or spouses. Over the past 25 years, we’ve raised public consciousness that this is a reality of women’s experiences that occurs on multiple levels. It occurs in the workplace and the street, it occurs online and it occurs when women are looking to get jobs or looking to get promoted. The next step is to get it to reach the legal consciousness level. Do people really think that this should be outlawed, and if this is outlawed, what should be the consequences when people harass?
People have already reached the conclusion that Harvey Weinstein behaved in ways that are entirely inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal. What will be the consequences to him? We shouldn’t just be concerned with whether or not Weinstein will be able to make more movies and continue to have an impact in Hollywood. I would like to have as much attention paid to the consequences to the women he has abused. We should look at how this has impacted their lives and careers.
As told to Brent Lang.