In October 1991, I, along with millions of other curious viewers, watched the Senate nomination hearings for the Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. My curiosity, like that of many others, had been piqued by the presence of Thomas’ former assistant, Anita Hill, who had accused him of sexual harassment at her workplace. On the second day of her testimony, I was joined in my viewing by my girlfriend; we worked together at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey–she as a technical writer, I as a systems analyst. As we watched the hearings, my girlfriend grew increasingly animated–she commented time and again on Hill’s ‘bravery,’ her ‘courage,’ on how difficult it must have been for her to speak up. She spoke too, of the many incidents of harassment–major and minor–she herself had suffered at her workplace; she told me how all around her, women were talking–to each other, and to anyone, men included, who would listen–about how Anita Hill was giving voice to a complaint all too often ignored. And indeed, over the next few days, in newspapers, on talk shows, in usenet newsgroups, you could hear women talking about how Anita Hill’s testimony had blown the lid off the modern workplace’s biggest and most enduring scandal: the daily rituals of intimidation, humiliation, harassment that women had to undergo within its precincts. All around me, everyone agreed: this was a national ‘conversation’ we needed to be having; the world was not going to be the same again after these kinds of ‘revelations’; boyfriends and husbands were listening. (On the night Thomas’ confirmation was received, I was at my girlfriend’s house. When we heard the final 52-48 vote to confirm, she kicked the bed in disgust and anger; no one would listen to women; despite all that Hill had said, despite her transparent sincerity, the usual fog of obfuscation and denial–and in Thomas’ case, an astonishing self-pitying rant–had derailed her claims.)
It is now 2017, some twenty-six years on. The years have rolled on, much has changed, but yet more endures. We have been assured, thanks to La Affaire Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign, that we are at a national watershed moment when it comes to the problem of sexual harassment, that we now have unprecedented awareness about the problems that women face in the workplace–and elsewhere–when it comes to the business of being able to simply maintain some kinds of boundaries around themselves and their bodies. Back in 1991, in my workplace, there had been many employee seminars for ‘sensitivity training’ and the like–all to increase workplace awareness about the problem of sexual harassment. The men hadn’t liked it then; the current evidence seems to suggest all those seminars, at workplaces nationwide, had little effect–the Weinstein scandal is merely the most publicized of the many sexual harassment ‘scandals’ since. There is reason for pessimism again: the #MeToo campaign is already old hat, and business is returning to normal all too soon.
We’ve been here before; we might yet find ourselves at these crossroads again. Our memories are all too fragile, all too easily effaced.