Since we chose a retrograde misogynist to be the most powerful person on Earth, now seems like a good time to talk about sexual harassment, political correctness and how things actually get better in this country.
Thirty years ago and for a millennium or two before that, Trumpian sexual harassment was closer to the norm. Nearly everything our new president has been accused of—cornering random women and kissing them, groping employees, firing his staff for reporting their managers—was an accepted occupational hazard for women regardless of what occupation they held.
When we look back at the bad old days of sexism, we usually focus on the way attitudes have changed. And indeed they have. Most Americans, if poll numbers are any indication, find Trump’s alleged behavior repellant. The blatant, sneering “C’mere toots” sleaziness he represents hasn't disappeared, of course, but it's become less palatable, the kind of thing men have to dig up phrases like “locker room talk” to defend.
But when we tell the story of this huge (and incomplete) shift in attitudes, we tend to overlook the quieter shifts in the legal system that were just as consequential. In a 1979 case in which a woman sued three of her supervisors for harassing her, a District Court judge found that “the making of improper sexual advances to female employees [was] standard operating procedure, a fact of life, a normal condition of employment”—but still refused to award her any damages. Until 1986, the only form of sexual harassment that was illegal was quid pro quo harassment, where your boss explicitly said something like, “Sleep with me or lose your job.”
The fact that employers these days are responsible for preventing harassment, and are on the hook for millions of dollars in punitive damages if they don’t, is not a coincidence. It's the result of decades of work by women’s groups, and dozens of victims risking their livelihoods to come forward and call bullshit on the Trumpian impunity that used to be the norm.
Which brings us to a new Highline video series called “I Misremember the 90s.” Over the next few months, the series will re-examine some of the decade’s seminal events in an effort to pluck out the big ideas we missed, the figures we misunderstood and the half-truths that hardened into conventional wisdom. We hope that, by trying to understand the ’90s, we can live and think better now.
And the first episode is about the Anita Hill hearings. It’s true that they woke America up to the sleeping giant of sexual harassment. Just two years after Hill came forward to accuse Clarence Thomas of telling her about his porn habits at work, harassment cases had nearly doubled. Less than a year after the hearing, 19 women were elected to the House of Representatives and four to the Senate. The press called 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”
But that’s not the whole story. You’ve got to watch the video for that.