On January 18th Anita Hill, an attorney and professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies, spoke at the University of Connecticut’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Living Legacy Convocation. Hill was thrust into the forefront of the national sexual harassment conversation in 1991 when she testified that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually assaulted her when they worked together at the U.S. Department of Education. Hill spoke at length about the issue of sexual assault in the workplace and on college campuses, specifically focusing on the history surrounding the problem and what can be done about it.
One of the points addressed in Hill’s talk was the structures that have been in place for decades to enable those who engage in sexual harassment. For example, some judges who decided sexual assault cases had engaged in sexual assault themselves, with a wealth of evidence indicating that they engaged in improper behavior with female jurors, attorneys, and office workers. The power structures that were in place not just in a work environment but in the judicial system made it all but impossible for women to seek retribution in the past. In fact, they often faced retaliation if they dared to report sexual harassment.
This fear of speaking out is essential to understanding why many women and men are only reporting incidents now, even if they occurred decades prior. Often it was in a person’s best interest not to say anything, because not only would they not be believed but they might lose their job or be attacked in other ways. Hill herself was attacked for her testimony, and the testimony in question was dismissed by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee.
Hill also stressed the importance of due process for both sides during her speech. Often the main critique for strong sexual harassment policies, whether in the workplace or on college campuses, is that they do not sufficiently protect the accused harasser. Hill asserted that Obama era policies on campus sexual assault were careful to guarantee due process for all involved, though a lack of due process was the reason cited by Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, when the guidelines were reversed.
Due process should unquestionably be ensured, but the rescinded guidelines did not constitute a violation of this. Finally giving a voice to accusers after years of coercing them into silence is not “unfair to the accused”. It is finally leveling the playing field. It is important to listen to Professor Hill’s advice by listening to accusers and stop being complicit in any system that enables sexual assault.