NEW YORK – Anita Hill educated a nation about workplace sexual harassment back in 1991 with calm, deliberate testimony against Clarence Thomas. And today, 30 years later, she speaks in the same measured tones, eschewing dramatic declarations — especially of victory — and sounding more like the soft-spoken academic she is than an activist.
But Hill was certain enough, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation this week, to make this pronouncement: “We’ve made progress. The conversation has changed. And #MeToo did that.”
Hill was joined by a number of leading figures connected with #MeToo in her feeling that the movement, launched in 2017 with revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, had reached a significant milestone this week, regardless of fits and starts along the way.
“When you’ve got millions of people talking about their experiences … and understanding they are not alone, I think that sent a message to the American public that we needed to stop being in denial about these problems,” Hill said in an interview after the governor said Tuesday he was resigning in two weeks, amid a slew of harassment allegations.
“Because there were just too many voices and too many experiences for us to say collectively that this doesn’t happen. So I think that was the role that #MeToo had to play, in order for us to get where we are today.”
To attorney Debra Katz, who’s represented women accusing powerful men of sexual misconduct for four decades — including Christine Blasey Ford, accuser of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Charlotte Bennett, one of the earliest Cuomo accusers — the resignation marks “a really important moment of reckoning” for a movement that has shifted in and out of the spotlight in the last year or two. Just last month, many worried that the sight of comedian Bill Cosby freed from prison — after the reversal of his conviction on a technicality — would have a chilling effect on the movement.
Katz said the Cuomo result would simply never have happened before #MeToo. She noted specifically the domino effect of one accuser coming out — Lindsey Boylan, first — and then others like Bennett emerging, inspired by the courage of fellow accusers and enraged by attempts to discredit them.
“What you had was women supporting one another, because in this post #MeToo moment, and maybe because of the (young) age of these complainants … they were just not going to give him a pass,” Katz said.
Most crucial, said Katz and others, was what they called the exhaustive and thorough investigation into Cuomo’s behavior conducted by New York Attorney General Letitia Jame s — a huge contrast, they said, to that conducted into Kavanaugh’s behavior by the FBI.
Hill said that the breadth and transparency of the New York investigation, which detailed the harassment accusations of 11 women, was “something we’ve never seen before.”
"It was a model, I think, for how we can move forward and address these issues, whether in government or in corporations or in the legal system,” she said. Like Katz, she decried the Kavanaugh investigation; Kavanaugh was eventually confirmed despite Ford’s accusations, as was Thomas, in 1991, despite Hill’s testimony.
Cuomo and his lawyers have attacked the attorney general’s report, saying it glossed over gaps in the evidence, left out facts in his favor and accepted unsupported allegations against him as true without proof. While he’s acknowledged that some of the incidents with women did occur, he’s said he didn’t realize he was making anyone uncomfortable, and denied the most serious allegation he faced — that he groped an aide’s breast — as fabricated.
Tarana Burke, the activist who gave the #MeToo movement its name, noted that many had been disturbed by the fact that Cuomo, who presented himself as a strong ally of the #MeToo movement, is accused of engaging in harassing behavior at the very same time. But she stressed that it's important thing to focus not on the accused but on the accusers, and their increasing bravery in coming forward — an encouraging sign for the future.
“The fact that he would do this lets me know that power is just insidious,” she said of Cuomo. “I don’t know how much headway we’re making in that area. But we’re making headway in the other area where women are coming forward. And I think that’s a big victory.”
“I think it’s a big thing to look at these young people,” she added of the youth of Cuomo’s accusers (Bennett, for example, is 25.) “This is a movement that has to stay young and fresh. When people think of #MeToo, I want them to think of 22-year-old college students … (people) thinking bigger and brighter and braver and bolder than I am."
Burke has long said it’s dangerous to view each case as a win or a loss, because satisfaction with one can easily turn to disappointment with the next, as when Cosby was freed. But she said she’d be lying if she didn’t feel intense satisfaction when she heard, from her mother on the phone, that the governor was stepping down.
“I actually cursed, which I try not to do in front of my mom, but I was excited,” she said. “And my excitement was about, can you imagine how amazing that must feel to these 11 women who, conversely, their lives could have been completely destroyed? These women could have been … silenced, blackballed and worse. So I feel really good for them, that they have some sense of relief and accountability.”
Like Burke, Hill has always said no one case should serve as a referendum on the movement.
One point, though, seems likely to her: Five years ago, the results in the Cuomo case would not have been the same. “I don’t know that the public would have pushed back so strongly,” she said. "I don’t know if people in the party would have called for a resignation.”
Still, work remains, especially in the area of accountability, said Hill, who along with her teaching at Brandeis University chairs the Hollywood Commission, which works toward eliminating sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.
Hill noted that a recent commission survey found a strong belief in the industry that sexual harassers will not be held accountable.
“This is (just) one example,” she said of the Cuomo case. “There are probably people who will still not believe that a person who is in power will be called to reckon for violations in the workplace. And the question we have to ask ourselves is: Is this an aberration, or is this something that can be the beginning of a trend, if we do it right?"