Stories about sexual harassment in the workplace have dominated the news cycle this fall, but New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer remembers a time not that long ago when even the term “sexual harassment” felt new.
“Most of us really didn’t know much about sexual harassment,” she says. “Many of us had experienced it, but we didn’t really know the name for it or how to handle it.”
That started to change in October 1991, when a law professor named Anita Hill testified before a Senate panel that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Thomas had been Hill’s boss at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Though Hill’s testimony didn’t prevent Thomas from being confirmed, it did help bring the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the open. “I feel that it was the moment when — to use the phrase of today — when the country began to be ‘woke’ to the subject of sexual harassment,” Mayer says.
Mayer went on to co-write the 1994 book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, which detailed Thomas’ fractious Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Mayer believes it might be time to re-investigate Hill’s allegations against Thomas, and New York Magazine journalist Rebecca Traister agrees. But Traister is cautious about how much has really changed since Hill testified before the Senate.
“Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court; Donald Trump was elected president, despite the stories of 15 women who claim that he assaulted them,” Traister says. “So the notion that we’re now in this moment where everybody’s going to pay is disproven by the guy sitting in our White House.”
On the idea of re-investigating the sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas
Jane Mayer: I feel like this is a ripe area to go back and re-report. Some of the women may feel that they can speak out now in a way they didn’t before. Over the years I’ve heard of other women too who are sitting on their stories about Clarence Thomas but haven’t felt that they could afford to speak up. …
I have to say as someone who covers politics in Washington — despite everything that we’ve seen in the last few months about this change in thinking about zero-tolerance for sexual harassment — maybe I’m too cynical, but I have grave doubts about whether anyone’s going to really want to re-open the Clarence Thomas story in a serious way, or subject him to recall or potential impeachment hearings. I think it would be a bloody moment politically.
There was always a race aspect of this, too, that in a way kind of protected him. And he played that big in saying that he was being subjected to a “high-tech lynching,” is the way he put it. I think it’s still a very fraught area and I doubt anyone is going to want to move on it.
Rebecca Traister: I think we would all profit from a re-investigation of the case, but I can’t envision a future where there’s any result that satisfies. … It feels, on the one hand, as though we’ve been through these two months in which we’re seeing really powerful people lose jobs, in some cases; where we’re seeing women’s claims taken very seriously; where people are worrying, in fact, that all the claims are being taken seriously. … But that we’re having this moment, in part, because up until, like, five minutes ago, women’s claims weren’t taken seriously.
On how the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee responded to Hill’s testimony
Mayer: She was just dragged through the dirt. They accused; they questioned her motives; they suggested that she was something they called an “erotomaniac”; they questioned whether she was a woman scorned, whether she had personal motives, whether she had professional motives, political motives. … They basically questioned her sanity and made her out to be a liar and potentially a lunatic. …
She served as kind of a canary in the coal mine for women about what happens when you do speak up against a powerful man, even though she hadn’t even asked to speak up.
On Sen. Ted Kennedy’s conspicuous silence during the hearings
Traister: Ted Kennedy … remained famously very silent throughout those hearings, and in part that’s because, in this question that sort of mixes sexual power abuses and professional power abuses, Ted Kennedy had his own questionable history around women. … At the time of the Anita Hill hearings, Ted Kennedy’s nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was on trial for rape in Florida for an event, an alleged rape, that took place on a night that had begun with William Kennedy Smith drinking with Ted Kennedy.
There was this sense that Kennedy’s own behaviors in some way muzzled him in this political moment when he, as a member of the Judiciary Committee and by many measures the liberal conscience of the Senate, should have been more vocal.
On the importance of distinguishing between consensual and non-consensual workplace relationships
Mayer: I don’t want to see the workplace become overridden with a kind of Taliban-like mentality that the sexes have to be separated and any kind of sexual behavior between colleagues is something that is terrible.
Maybe I say that partly because … about 35 years ago I was interviewed by someone for a job at The Washington Post and for 25 years I’ve been married to him. I ended up not taking the job, but that’s how I met him.
A lot of women and men meet each other through work; it’s where we spend most of our time. Again, this gets back to the subject of consent. There’s nothing improper about getting involved — it’s a little complicated maybe, but it’s not necessarily a situation that is of harassment.
On why Mayer and many of her female colleagues in journalism didn’t report harassment when they experienced it early in their careers
Mayer: As someone who was in the workplace now for — God, I don’t know — 40 years or something, it was so rampant. It was something that we all dealt with, and there’s so many men who have so much to atone for, if you go back in time. Most of us just had to cope some way or another. It was just kind of how things were. …
I think the answer is kind of, this exaggerates it a little bit, but it’s a little bit like asking the slaves why they didn’t complain about the masters. The power was on the other side, and it went all the way up through to the top of these companies, and you really had very little power as a young female working almost exclusively for men. There was kind of nobody to complain to, including HR departments.
Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.