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Tell Your Daughter About Anita

Vivia Chen

October 12, 2011

Anita_hill-2My 16-year-old daughter doesn't know who Anita Hill is, but I plan to tell her.

This is the twentieth anniversary of Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court. That's when Hill shook the world with her graphic testimony about how Thomas sexually harassed her when he chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Since that testimony, I tend to label working women as either pre-Anitas or post-Anitas. If you fall into the "pre" model--someone who entered the workforce before 1991--you probably labored in a meaner, coarser environment.

I'm saying this from my own history. Back in the eighties, when I graduated from law school, there were few women even in the mid-associates ranks (forget about women partners). So boys ruled.

That meant we put up with a lot of baloney. Getting hit on by your superior (either a partner or a senior associate) was more or less par for the course. I can tell you plenty of stories in which partners pawed young women associates or kissed them out of the blue after a business meeting. And sometimes they'd take you to a nice lunch and propose a casual affair (that's what married partners did). All of this happened to me.

Then there were the more indirect forms of harassment--like having to cheerfully accompany partners and clients to strip joints in Nashville. I was spared the topless bars, but I do remember being enlisted to go to clubs, where I was expected to dance with clients. Just another day at the office.

And did we complain about any of this? Absolutely not! It seems twisted now, but back then, I think we felt it was a test of our toughness to handle those "inconveniences." Besides, who were we going to complain to? There was no director of diversity, no monitor for women's professional development. And I seriously doubt the management committee gave a hoot about the indiscretions of its partners--especially those of a top rainmaker.

Which brings me to something I still hear today: that Anita Hill doesn't deserve the feminist pedestal because her credibility is lacking. I hear this from men mostly (including liberals). They say that Hill is a hypocrite because she followed Thomas to another job even after he allegedly sexually harassed her. Also damning is that Hill apparently maintained cordial relations with Thomas for a time after she stopped working for him.

Well, here's my secret: I've done the same thing--and so have other women. Yes, we suck up to former bosses who have been abusive or crossed the line of decent behavior. I mean, who else are we supposed to turn to for that critical job recommendation? His long-suffering secretary?

So unless you've teetered in my high heels, please spare me your purity.

As bad as sexism might be today, it was far worse back before Anita Hill shined a glaring light on what goes on behind the heavy doors of those lofty offices.

So tonight I will make a point of telling my daughter about what happened in the Senate 20 years ago. Thanks to Anita Hill, my daughter will have to put up with a lot less nonsense.


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Vivia, thank you for this entry. I was out of town when it posted, so am responding late.
I also remember that as an associate we women were encouraged to attend "clubs" and "dances" with partners, especially when out of town. There were discussions of the exhibited "skills". Still, I also remember knowing, or so I thought, how to handle these things without it ruining my career. Unfortunately when these demeaning acts of intimidation or worse are publicly exposed, often the victim is hurt. I am all for making psychological assaults public, but exposure to career risk is very real.
Anita Hill paid dearly for her bravery. She got my undying respect. However, the country got Clarence Thomas in a speedy appointment.

There were more accusers waiting. Bush 1 saw that the testimony of others would be kept under wraps by pushing through the Thomas appointment in days instead of the few weeks it was supposed to have taken.

Also, tell your daughter how Anita was interrogated before the Thomas nomination: She answered the government's questions on the condition that she would not have to confront Mr Thomas with her statements. But then the government violated her confidences: She was instead made to testify in public before the Senate. Mr. Biden's judiciary Committee exploited her testimony in a partisan display that she said was not intended by her.

I graduated in 1981 and did nine years on active duty in the Army JAG corps. I loved the Army and eventually did 30 years active and reserves, but I highly recommend that any woman in practice watch the scene in "A Few Good Men" where Jack Nicholson talks about having sex with a superior officer. Oh yes, it was indeed like that back then and then some. And don't forget Demi stood in line, 8 months pregnant, to audition for that role because a Hollywood producer said it didn't need to be a woman actor because the character didn't have sex with anybody and didn't take her clothes off. Anita Hill had more guts and brawn than all but about 5 of the men I have worked with in the past 30 years, and those guys were combat veterans.

Pointed and poignant, Vivia. Thank you. Have shared it.

If Hill were crazy enough to fabricate the Long Dong Silver and Coke Can incidents and perjure herself on global TV in exchange for nothing but being called nutty and slutty, you'd expect her to act a little crazy somehow in some other way, even a little. A subtle reference to Gog and Magog somewhere. A smile at the mention of flying saucers. Even a funny hat, just once. But no. She was and remains an ordinary conventional sensible-shoes organization woman, which is why she was and remains believable, and why Thomas's histrionic, transparently manipulative rant about how he was being lynched was and remains the suspect whine of a liar.

I passed the California bar in 1962 after attending three different ABA law schools. The first one (U of Washington), I left because my only living parent, my mom was killed and I applied for and received a fellowship to study in Austria. The second one was UCB in California and since I had a law firm job in San Francisco the commute finally got to me so I transferred to USF in San Francisco.
I never had any of those problems that some other women complain about. The men in my class and in the firms that I worked for were great. Also I never had trouble getting a job and I could not type so it definitely was not as a clerical level. (Even during law school I did attorney type of work)
Perhaps I always was just at the right place at the right time.
Pat Hersom.

We probably will never know the absolute truth about Anita Hill’s story (though I believe it), and now that may be beside the point. There are many women, though certainly not all, who have stories similar to Vivia’s, and today’s young women should know the Anita Hill story and theirs for perspective and to appreciate that things have changed if not yet perfect. (Though I experienced lots of flirting from men I worked with – older and young – I was lucky not to have been aggressively hit upon and put in situations where it was uncomfortable to maintain a working relationship and even friendships. So my views are not specifically personal.)

Nonetheless, the outcome of what was revealed at the Senate hearings and Anita Hill’s sticking to her story eventually led to significant changes, and for that we all – that is, women and even men of all ages - should thank her.

Danielle: We see what we want to see.

Tom S: He's a schmuck. Anyone who acts that way is far from principled. And no woman would testify the way Anita Hill testified in that time period if she didn't actually experience that treatment.

I find it amusing that 1 or 2 men commenting here say that THEY never saw any sexual harassment. Um, let's just say that you wouldn't be the one who would notice or who would be propositioned or groped.

JF1956 - I practiced law post-Anita Hill (though I was in the workforce in the 80s prior to attending law school) on both the West Coast and the East Coast. Moving from the West Coast back East was like moving back in time 10 or 15 years when it came to open sexism that I saw and experienced at the 100-attorney firm at which I worked (and I'm talking late 90s). (BTW, there were only 3 women partners at the firm.) To a certain extent, geography made a difference but you and I both worked in NYC and we had very different experiences.

It is ridiculous that you are assuming Anita Hill was telling the truth and Thomas is lying. It is totally unfair hit against a principled black American who pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a Supreme Court Justice. Another lib calling him an Uncle Tom as he is a conservative black man.

I graduated law school in 1986. I had some bad experiences and some good in the firms I worked for. As a law student working full time in a law firm, one of the partners called me into his office specifically to badger me about why I was going to law school in the first place and why I didn't just want to get married and stay home and have babies - seriously. My first lawyer job was in a mid-sized city in New England, where judges and male lawyers routinely mistook me for someone's secretary and my secretary hated my guts because I was female and she had to actually do my clerical work. When I got to a firm with a female partner and some pretty cool male partners it was like an awakening. They gave me the best training I could have had and I will always appreciate my experience there. To some degree it is about perception and how, as a female, one decided to handle these situations. I never had it as bad as Anita, so I don't know what I would do, but when you are not a member of the dominant group, you have to find ways of coping. She's a hero to me and always will be.

Great post Vivia and absolutely dead on. I started legal practice in the mid-80s and if I posted the sexually gross comments that I heard on a day to day basis, I'd be charged with posting obscene materials. We did just have to listen. if you responded in any other way, it only made matters worse.

Great post, Vivia. Thanks for the reminder.

I am also pre-Anita but barely. I was working as a new associate when the hearings were happening and it was interesting the comments from people in the office. The men I worked with sided with Anita although I am sure not all men did. I never felt like a token, and, at that firm, I never suffered any harrassment (although I do have funny stories to tell about the appreciation of another team about their paralegals' scantily clad apparel). When I moved to another large city, the whole "diversity officer" era still had not taken over. Although I was appreciated for my hard work, it was also suggested at times that "I sit on the client's lap" (I think this was half kidding) or that I wear something "revealing" when we went on client pitches (also half-kidding but such statements would never happen today). And, what is funny, I thought that was just a part of being a woman in a law firm and accepted it. Times went on and I, like Anita, followed the crass partner, to a new firm and I made partner a few years later. Eventually, things went downhill when I got married and had a child because the crass partner also did not believe that a woman should work once she has a child. I stuck it out despite pay cuts and heavy monitoring of my comings and goings and he left a year or so later and I am still here (although never fully recovering from the damage to my salary during these dark years). What is important to note here is that firms at this time (early 2000s) still did not have a person to report to, especially once you became partner. I raised the issue to a few people but nothing ever happened. All of this would NEVER happen today and I think all of this dates back to what changed at the Anita Hill trials although it took a while to catch hold.

Thank you, JF, for telling the truth. Maybe it does reflect geographic differences, but I remember those days, too, in the New York area, and just like today, most professional women did not hesitate to tell you for a second every little grievance they had. Guys would get snapped at even for just holding the door open for women, since that supposedly was a sexist thing to do.

Its absurd to say that someone telling another person that it looks like there is pubic hair in his Coke is sexual harassment. Both sexes have pubic hair, and it is not an attractive thing for anyone to say. If Thomas said it to another guy, no one would have accused him of sexual harassment, and so in fact, it was Hill, not Thomas, who was the sexist.

Finally, Vivia, if you have a problem with high heels, stop wearing them. I, for one, and I speak for millions of guys, would just as soon high-heels shoes were considered contraband and illegal anywhere in the United States. I'm confident no guy in the workplace ever insisted you wear them.

Well put Vivia! Although I'm not an attorney, I graduated in 1977 and crawled up the corporate ladder, sucking-up, putting-up but never giving up. I finally started my own business, where I only have to put up with my own behavior! :)
I have two daughters who I hope will have an easier time. And I just authored a book for young women entering the work force (www.2booms.com) Let's never forget Anita!

As a guy who graduated from law school in 1984 and also joined a Big Law firm, I was never aware of a sexually hostile working environment -- and certainly the female associates I worked with were never regarded as "token hires," in contrast to MCG's experience. I'm a huge admirer of Anita Hill, but I think her ordeal had as much to do with racial politics as sexual harrassment. If Thomas hadn't been in a position to make the "high-tech lynching" case, the entire tenor of the confirmation hearings would have been quite different, don't you think?


Or you can just bring her here this weekend and let her hear it straight from Hill:
Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later

Strange. I am definitely pre-Anita, having graduated from law school in 1983. I worked at a large NY firm from the time I was a summer associate through my fifth year, when I decided that the life of a large firm partner was not for me (not for any gender-based reason; I just wanted my life back!). My class was about 40 percent women. I never had the experience you describe and I don't know of any friends who did either. I am not saying that women have it equal in law practice -- far from it. But that kind of vulgar, unsubtle sexism never was much of an issue, at least in my experience. Maybe it is a geographic difference.

Vivia, You are so right. I hear nothing but criticism of Anita Hill, and it is unjustified. Back in those days, everyone assumed you were just a token hire, and incompetent. If you complained, you ruined whatever kind of career you had. If possible, you pretended not to notice the boss's boorish behavior. You moved away from his grasp, and you changed the subject when he asked rude questions. Anita Hill had enormous courage, and she suffered as a result. We are all in her debt.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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