Recently, one of the women who have accused Herman Cain of making inappropriate sexual advances said (through her attorney) she did not want to identify herself publicly because she did not want to become “another Anita Hill.” What does it mean to “be Anita Hill.” Professor Hill’s story is in many ways a story of perseverance over the expectations of her time about the role of women in the workplace. Then, and still now, coming forward and alleging harassment often requires speaking truth to power. Yet, as Cain’s accuser’s reluctance suggests, it also a choice not live in anonymity and to invite controversy and potential ridicule.
The hearings that resulted from Professor Hill’s accusations against Justice Thomas catapulted the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace into the national spotlight. Because Professor Hill stepped forward, it is now normative for women to voice complaints of sexual advances that were previously assumed to be acceptable collateral consequences of women being in the workplace.
Yet, even today, Cain’s accuser finds anonymity more important than (if her allegations are accurate) potentially speaking truth to power. It is easy to rush to a conclusion about what you would do in her place, or similarly, what you would do if you faced harassment in the workplace. But if it happened to you, tomorrow, are you so certain you would act?
Would you be willing to put your relationships with your colleagues or supervisor at risk? Would you have no fear of retaliation in the form of a negative evaluation or other workplace downgrading? You will inevitably ask yourself if it is worth jeopardizing your source of livelihood and career just to make a complaint?
However, it is important to note that over the last several years the Supreme Court has significantly strengthened the legal protections available to women and men who oppose or report sexual harassment (or other forms of discrimination). Specifically, the Supreme Court has held that an employer’s conduct may be considered retaliation if the action “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 54 (2006). It means what it says. Accordingly, today, recipients of unwanted sexual overtures are protected by one of the most robust civil rights provisions Congress has ever passed.
Whether or not today’s women are willing to became the “Next Anita Hill,” if they are willing to oppose sexual harassment their path has been made much easier by both Professor Hill and a thoughtful civil rights decision from the Supreme Court. We should thank them both.