A Watershed Moment for Sexual-Harassment Accusations
So why have Harvey Weinstein’s alleged transgressions been taken so much more seriously? One answer, it seems, has less to do with the accused than with the accuser. Weinstein’s sexual-harassment scandal is unlike almost every other in recent memory because many of his accusers are celebrities, with status, fame, and success commensurate to his own.
Sexual harassment is about power, not sex, and it has taken women of extraordinary power to overcome the disadvantage that most accusers face. As Susan Faludi, the author of “Backlash: the Undeclared War Against Women,” put it in an e-mail to me, “Power belongs only to the celebrities these days. If only Trump had harassed Angelina Jolie. . . .”
Anita Hill, a woman with unusual insight into this topic, agrees that the nature of Weinstein’s accusers is the reason that his exposure has proved to be a watershed moment. In a phone interview, Hill emphasized that sexual-harassment cases live and die on the basis of “believability,” and that, in order for the accusers to prevail, “they have to fit a narrative” that the public will buy. At least until now, very few women have had that standing.
Twenty-six years ago, Hill learned this the hard way, when, as a young Yale Law School graduate, she famously testified that Clarence Thomas was unsuitable for confirmation to the Supreme Court, on the grounds that he had repeatedly harassed her while he served as her boss, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (I wrote about the confirmation process and Hill’s allegations in the book “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.”) Her testimony blasted the subject of workplace sexual harassment into the public consciousness, but it was swept aside by the Senate.
In televised public congressional hearings, Hill’s credibility was attacked, her character smeared, and her sworn testimony dismissed as an unresolvable “he said, she said” conflict. After Thomas described the process as a “high-tech lynching”—despite the fact that both he and Hill are African-American—the Senate confirmed him.
Hill, who is now a law professor at Brandeis University, told me that what Thomas possessed, like many accused harassers, and unlike many accusers, was a winning “narrative.” The lynching story resonated deeply. Without a similarly widely accepted narrative, Hill was vulnerable to detractors supplying their own readings—imputing false motives, insinuating psychological problems, and smearing her, as the American Spectator notoriously did, as “a bit nutty and a bit slutty.”
In contrast, Hill pointed out, “the Hollywood-starlet narrative is part of the folklore. The casting couch is a long-standing issue.” In addition, she told me, “people often believe the myth that only conventionally beautiful women are harassed—and so it didn’t seem that far-fetched to people that this would happen to beautiful starlets who we all know and love.”
Charges levied at political figures, Hill believes, face a particularly high hurdle. Her case, like those of the women who accused Trump, she says, “was cast as a political story.” In such situations, “everything gets interpreted through a political lens, and it makes it almost impossible” for people to seriously consider whether the accused harasser “is the right person to represent you. It just becomes, ‘This is our guy’ and ‘people are trying to bring him down.’ ”
Meanwhile, as Jessica Leeds, who accused Trump, during the campaign, of groping her on a plane thirty years ago, told the Washington Post, “It is hard to reconcile that Harvey Weinstein could be brought down with this, and [President] Trump just continues to be the Teflon Don.” Melinda McGillivray, another accuser, told the Post that she, too, was having trouble accepting the double standard. “What pisses me off is that the guy is president,” she said. McGillivray accused Trump of grabbing her at Mar-a-Lago, in 2003, when she was twenty-three years old.
Hill says she is “hopeful” that, in light of the Weinstein affair and other recent sexual-harassment revelations against powerful bosses, “people will revisit the women” who accused Trump. But she fears that the Weinstein lesson “won’t translate to everyday women, or even those in high-profile careers in places like Silicon Valley,” who still don’t have the fame, success, and standing of movie stars.
“We need to transfer the believability,” Hill said. She argued that the public needs to understand that Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie “are just like women down the street. People need to take this moment to make clear that this is not just about Hollywood.”