A quarter-century ago, Anita Hill spoke out about sexual harassment. She lost her fight, but women won in ways that still reverberate in American politics.
Hill’s accusations that then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her when she worked as his aide cost her greatly. She came away from testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee humiliated, her reputation in tatters, while Thomas was confirmed. But her testimony before the all-male committee — to be dramatized by Scandal’s Kerry Washington in an HBO on April 16 — galvanized millions of women across America.
One of them was a state lawmaker in Washington who found that Hill’s humiliation was all that women wanted to talk about at an event that evening.
“It was so stark, watching these men grill this woman in these big chairs and looking down at her,” Democratic Senator Patty Murray told me for my book, Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works. “And I just said, I am going run for [U.S.] Senate,” she recalled. “Because they need somebody there who is going to say what I would say if I was there,” which would’ve been to defend Hill and question Thomas instead.
Murray was elected that year along with three other women, Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun and in California Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — marking not only the first time any state was represented by two women in the upper chamber but a tripling of the number of women in that body. The addition of Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison in a special election a few months later raised that number to seven out of 100, and cemented for the first time the plural presence of women in the Senate. To mark the occasion in 1993, the Senate added a single-stall women’s bathroom off the chamber floor, which was expanded in 2013 to accommodate the record 20 women in that session.
The Senate wasn’t the only place that saw gains. A record 24 women were elected to the House, increasing female representation in the lower body by more than 60% from 30 to 48 women. Hundreds more ran for school boards, county commissions and state legislatures, earning 1992 the moniker “The Year of the Woman.” And women enrolling in law school peaked at over 52% of all law students, a level that has not again been reached. Currently, women account for about 48% of law students.
A quarter-century ago, the public sector lagged behind the private sector on female representation. Thanks to Hill, women surged into government work, and today, all three branches lead the workforce in female representation. Congress stands at about 20% women, the Obama Administration is about 30% combining high-level civil service and political appointees and the federal bench is 35% women. These gains have led to a critical mass: women’s voices are being heard more than ever.
In 2013, a record seven women served on the Senate Judiciary Committee and they tackled sexual assault in the military as never before, forcing through extraordinary reforms in the Pentagon. The women hauled generals before the committee, grilling them for their lack of progress over the years. The scene struck many women who remembered Hill’s experience as a satisfying reversal.
“Going from the visual from where Anita Hill was met with such hostility by almost all the men,” said Judith Lichtman, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, which promotes women’s issues on Capitol Hill, “to the Armed Services hearing is just a full arch and it’s an example of the difference a significant numbers of women senators in very powerful positions can make.”
Newton-Small is author of the recent book, Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, which looks at how institutions change when women reach critical mass. Available at Amazon.com and most bookstores.