America is waiting to see if 27 years is a long time in politics. In 1991, a woman called Anita Hill accused a Republican nominee for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. In 2018, a woman called Christine Blasey Ford has accused a Republican nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, of sexually assaulting her when she was 15.
The parallels are striking. Both women wanted to reveal their experiences to the FBI; both times, their testimony was leaked. Both then agreed to give evidence in public. Both walked into a media tornado by doing so. But will the outcome be different?
Hill’s case galvanised a whole generation of American feminists, because it wasn’t just Thomas, or her, on trial in the court of public opinion: it was a high-profile airing of all the dirty linen of sexual harassment, its myths and misunderstandings. (Hill’s allegations are of a different kind to Ford’s, but there is a common thread: both are a contest between two competing narratives in the absence of definitive evidence. He said vs she said.)
The spectacle of 1991 was supposed to mark a watershed. The former vice-president Joe Biden, who chaired the senate committee investigating the allegations, has since said he owes Hill an apology for the conduct of the hearings. Yet here we are again, this time with offstage interjections from a president who has boasted that “when you’re a star they let you do it”.
In 1991, the primary charge against Hill, then a young lawyer, was that she had followed her supervisor Thomas from the department of education to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Why do that, if he had harassed her?
And so Hill, one of a handful of black women to study law at Yale in the 1970s, had to explain something that too many women know intuitively, and too many men still don’t understand. Putting up with creeps is just a tax women pay for being alive in the world. In her first months working for him, Hill said that Thomas asked her out repeatedly. “He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes,” she recounted in her opening statement. “My reaction to these conversations was to avoid them by eliminating opportunities for us to engage in extended conversations.”
Eventually, Hill said, Thomas stopped. That convinced her to move to the commission, as did the “realistic fact that I had no alternative job”, particularly if she wanted to keep working on equal rights. But the lewd insinuations started again, and in 1983 she left – at which point, she said, Thomas told her that there would now be no reason for them not to see each other socially. “Finally, he made a comment that I will vividly remember. He said that if I ever told anyone of his behaviour that it would ruin his career. This was not an apology, nor was it an explanation.” In other words, Hill suggested, this wasn’t a case of misread signals or gauche lack of awareness: Thomas knew exactly what he was doing. Ironically for a conservative, though, he took no personal responsibility: her words would ruin his career, rather than his actions.
In The Mother Of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit writes that politeness “often means training that other people’s comfort matters more”. When I listen to the backlash to the #MeToo movement, what I hear is a rejection of the idea of men doing work – emotional labour – to monitor whether their words and actions are making others uncomfortable. Of the thing we expect women to be, constantly: on their guard.
And why wouldn’t you reject that? Emotional labour is tiring. It drains your energy away from the job you’re being paid to perform. Currently, the burden of inappropriate behaviour by powerful men falls squarely on women – either by having to report it, and face the consequences, or having to give up a beloved job (and the ability to pay your bills) to get away from it. Shifting the balance would move this lifelong tax burden from women to men. And who volunteers gladly to pay more taxes?
I should say here that gender is a stand-in for “power”. And power is fluid. There will be a few offices now, and more in the future, where it’s a female boss relying on the silence of uncomfortable junior colleagues, and where men have to be “polite” in the Solnit sense of the word.
For now, though, the balance is tipped in favour of men, and the distance between 2018 and 1991 doesn’t feel so vast when you realise that Ford is facing exactly the same question that Hill did. As Donald Trump tweeted on 21 September: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”
I could recite the facts: a very low percentage of sexual assault victims report the offence through shame, guilt and fear of the consequences; conviction rates are low, which is a further disincentive. And the penalty for speaking out can be ostracism and disbelief, compounding the trauma of the original incident. But you know this. Even Trump probably knows this; after all, the guy must have sat through enough meetings with lawyers about sexual harassment allegations in his time. The aim of his rhetoric is merely to ensure there is no right way to report an assault allegation.
“It would have been more comfortable to remain silent,” Hill said in 1991. “But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth.” Twenty-seven years later, it would have been easier for Ford to stay silent, too. We are about to find out if anything else has changed.
This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis