Listen. When are we going to get around to talking about sexual harassment done unto women —particularly black women — in the workplace? Is it hard to imagine that it can happen to her, or when it happens to her do you “justify” it because of over-sexualized stereotypes about African-American women?
On plantations, black women were sexually harassed and sexually assaulted. It was common knowledge, yet help regularly bypassed her. Walking down city sidewalks, black women have been subject to unwanted “catcalls.” Quickly, she learns how to ignore these disrespectful shout-outs.
Interestingly, sidewalk experiences share historical reminders of incidents that office walls have witnessed. If office walls could talk, they would tell the stories that many women — black women — have not. If you heard the stories of black women being harassed on the job, would you believe them?
Believe it. It is not a rare occurrence.
Meet Anita Faye Hill. Hill is an attorney and scholar. Prior to 1991, sexual harassment was not a topic frequently discussed, especially not in public. Hill became nationally known when she accused United States Supreme Court then-nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The contentious Senate hearings were televised. The nation watched.
Hill was Thomas’ attorney-adviser when he worked at the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. In addition, she was his assistant when he worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Hill alleged that she was the victim of sexual harassment by Thomas while employed in both jobs.
Are we properly preparing girls and young women for dealing with these real-world situations? Is she armed with options available to her outside of Human Resource departments? Have we fostered workplace environments that will support her in speaking out without fear of derailing her career after-the-fact?
Unfortunately, Hill found little support from the men in the Senate in either political party. On the other hand, numerous women’s groups stood firmly behind her. They, along with women politicians and lawyers, were infuriated by the way in which the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee challenged and dismissed Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment.
Reportedly, Hill had four female witnesses waiting to support her testimony, but they were not called. The United States Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52–48.
Today, more and more women are speaking out about their experiences of being sexually assaulted and/or harassed by men who have used their positions to do so. Accusations made against President Trump, Comedian Bill Cosby, former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and movie producer Harvey Weinstein have made headlines. Many of the women shown as victims of sexual harassment, however, do not have dark skin. Let us be mindful in knowing what Hill announced to the nation — black women are victims too.
Although on October 18, 1991, Thomas became a Supreme Court Justice, Hill’s courage triggered a political movement. At the time of Hill’s testimony, there were only 29 women in the House of Representatives and two women in the Senate. Women understood their need to be represented. They went to the polls and made their voices heard. In 1992, 24 women were elected to the House and three women were elected to the Senate. The year of 1992 was dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”
In addition, reportedly harassment complaints filed with the EEOC increased by 50 percent. Many private companies started training programs to discourage sexual harassment. Also, the pro-choice Democratic group EMILY’s List grew its membership from approximately 3,000 to 24,000 members.
Hill’s courage raised the public’s consciousness regarding sexual harassment of women – inclusive of black women – in workplaces. The work in this area is not complete. We must make sure girls and young women are better prepared to face this obstacle, unlike her mother before her. Women and men together can put a stop to this. Stop it.