I’m old enough to remember when, in 1991, President Bush I nominated then-Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Back then, the Senate actually did its job and held hearings to decide how it would advise the President on his choice. Mr. Thomas was heading easily towards approval when one of his former colleagues, Professor Anita Hill, accused him of sexually harassing her.
I realize how difficult this may be for many younger people to really understand, but there was a time in America when the sort of behavior that Professor Hill alleged — repeated requests from Thomas for Hill to date him and increasingly inappropriate references to sex in the workplace — were commonplace. Women were simply supposed to politely deflect that behavior and pretend it never happened. Really. Second Wave Feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s had laid the ground for what happened next, but the notion that “boys will be boys” at work and that women should just adjust to their behavior was very widespread and entrenched.
For a few days, America was glued to its tv sets and newspapers as the Senate grappled with and decided to ignore Hill’s accusations. As we know, the Senate, under then-Senator Joe Biden’s leadership, confirmed Judge Thomas and he has been sitting on the Supreme Court ever since. But America changed that week. Thousands of women stepped up, publicly and in their own families and workplaces, and told their stories of harassment. Consciousness shifted and harassment became “not OK.” Over time, laws were passed. Things certainly aren’t perfect, even all these years later, but there’s a basic understanding that men caught doing those things aren’t going to be defended.
I have that feeling again this weekend, only it’s about sexual assault, rather than harassment. Yes, discussions of rape culture have laid the groundwork, but suddenly even conservative Republicans are finding themselves forced to condemn Donald Trump’s joking discussion of sexual assault.
Let’s hope it’s only the beginning.