What It Might Be Like if Anita Hill Testified Today

She’d see a different Senate. But one not fully changed.

Anita Hill takes the oath, 12 October 1991, before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
March 27, 2014, 4:20 p.m.

In 1991 An­ita Hill made us start think­ing about sexu­al har­ass­ment. Now, with the de­but of the doc­u­ment­ary An­ita: Speak­ing Truth to Power, she’s mak­ing us think about what’s changed 23 years later.

Back then, sexu­al har­ass­ment was still a re­l­at­ively new concept. It wasn’t un­til 1975 that the term even ap­peared in The New York Times, and when it did, the pa­per or­gan­ized a defin­i­tion of it in bul­let points, to suss out ex­actly what this for­eign idea en­tailed.

It was the be­gin­ning of an en­tirely dif­fer­ent era, par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to wo­men in Wash­ing­ton. When Hill went be­fore a Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee of all-white male sen­at­ors more than two dec­ades ago, her testi­mony sparked a back­lash that still re­ver­ber­ates. Where were the wo­men sen­at­ors?

The hear­ings helped in­spire the cam­paign of Demo­crat Patty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton state who, upon watch­ing Hill testi­fy, told her friends she was run­ning for the Sen­ate in 1992. That year would also see Di­anne Fein­stein and Bar­bara Box­er elec­ted to the Sen­ate, mak­ing Cali­for­nia the first state to be rep­res­en­ted in the up­per cham­ber by two wo­men. It was the year that Car­ol Mose­ley Braun of Illinois joined the Sen­ate, and the first year that four wo­men were elec­ted to the Sen­ate in a single elec­tion year.

After Hill’s testi­mony in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., sexu­al-har­ass­ment claims shot up. (It’s easi­er to speak about sex­ism when someone’s helped define the vocab­u­lary.) “Our phones were ringing off the hook with people will­ing to come for­ward who had been suf­fer­ing in si­lence,” Mar­cia D. Green­ber­ger, founder and copres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Wo­men’s Law Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, re­cently told The New York Times. And Con­gress passed le­gis­la­tion grant­ing sexu­al-dis­crim­in­a­tion vic­tims the right to sue for dam­ages.

Journ­al­ists hailed it as the “Year of the Wo­man,” but Sen. Bar­bara Mikul­ski wasn’t buy­ing the sound bite. “Call­ing 1992 the Year of the Wo­man makes it sound like the Year of the Cari­bou or the Year of the As­paragus,” the Mary­land Demo­crat said at the time. “We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”

When 2012 was dubbed Year of the Wo­man by me­dia out­lets such as Moth­er Jones, The Wash­ing­ton Post, and Salon, be­loved lady colum­nist Ann Fried­man sim­il­arly dis­missed the la­bel, not­ing that nine out of every 10 states still had a male gov­ernor and wo­men’s rep­res­ent­a­tion had been stag­nant since 2007. “We’ve made some in­cre­ment­al pro­gress since 1992, but to achieve gender par­ity in Con­gress and se­cure wo­men’s rights more broadly, every year has to be a Year of the Wo­man,” Fried­man wrote at the time. “And not just in the cam­paign head­lines, but on In­aug­ur­a­tion Day.”

If An­ita Hill were to testi­fy be­fore today’s Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, she would face three fe­male faces in ques­tion­ing; they in­clude Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Fein­stein, and just one wo­man of col­or, Sen. Mazie Hirono. That may not sound like much, but it’s three wo­men more than when Hill first went be­fore the com­mit­tee in 1991.

Should Re­pub­lic­ans take back the Sen­ate in 2014, as poll ana­lysts like Nate Sil­ver are now pre­dict­ing, those num­bers could be even worse — which is to say even more uni­formly white and male. (There are cur­rently no fe­male or minor­ity mem­bers on the GOP side of the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, the side of the com­mit­tee that would likely ex­pand giv­en a Re­pub­lic­an vic­tory, though it’s con­ceiv­able the three Demo­crat­ic wo­men would all stay on the com­mit­tee and some new fresh­man wo­men could come on as well.)

But that there has already been pro­gress, however in­cre­ment­al, is un­deni­able. At the time Hill test­i­fied there were just two wo­men serving in the en­tire Sen­ate: Mikul­ski and Nancy Kasse­baum of Kan­sas. Today there are 20.

“With the three Demo­crat­ic wo­men on that pan­el, I can ima­gine that the dy­nam­ic would be a lot dif­fer­ent today,” says Marcy Stech, a spokes­wo­man for EMILY’s List, the polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee that helps elect wo­men who sup­port abor­tion rights. “But we have more work to do, which is why we at EMILY’s List are fo­cused on elect­ing more wo­men in 2014 and we’re ex­cited to see the im­pact that more and more wo­men can make once they get to Wash­ing­ton.”

The doc­u­ment­ary is now play­ing at theat­ers in New York, Los Angeles, and San Fran­cisco.

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