Of the thousands of letters I received in the course of my public thrashing before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the October 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, one in particular stands out.
A seventh grader shared with me her frustration with the whole mess — indeed, with politics in general. Her class had voted on whether to believe my allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed me, or his denials. She voted for me, and wanted me to win. I lost that vote in her class — as I had, of course, with the Senate’s decision to confirm Thomas.
Men always side with men, my young letter-writer concluded. But, she also reminded me, life goes on. I was faced with the Senate’s apparent dismissal of my sexual harassment claim, calls for my job by state officials and death and rape threats from strangers. To add to the open opposition, pundits concluded that the hearing was a meaningless flash — predicted that women would fear coming forward with similar complaints after witnessing the Senate’s dismissive treatment of the issue.
Fortunately, the politicians and pundits were wrong; my 12-year-old ally/life coach was correct. Life went on. I survived by speaking out and challenging the Senate’s dangerously irresponsible handling of my testimony, not by retreating. And I kept my job.
Thousands of brave women felt compelled to act on their sexual harassment claims after watching the Thomas hearings, setting records for complaints filed with anti-discrimination agencies. And proving that their issues were bigger than that single moment, women campaigned for office and the country elected them in historic numbers.
For me, Nov. 8, 2016, felt like an unwelcome flashback to October 1991 — another sadly missed opportunity to affirm basic notions of decency and equity. Yet, 25 years after that first ordeal, I know that the simmering divides that exploded during this presidential election involve issues more profound than the mere election of a man like Donald Trump, with his record of misogyny and mistreatment. I know that his victory does not represent the final word, or will not if we work to prevent that outcome.
The “highest, hardest glass ceiling” that Hillary Clinton sought to shatter remains intact, but our country must return to addressing the multiple other challenges that women face. Clinton’s experience shows that ceilings that keep us from moving up are not our only limitations. More frequently than bumping up against ceilings, we encounter “walls” of day-to-day inequities that operate just as effectively as impediments to our progress.
Much has changed for women in the past quarter-century, but too much has stayed the same. Yes, some high-profile allegations of sexual harassment receive wide attention. Yet harassment, despite now-standard training to the contrary, is still routine in too many workplaces and exacts a physical, psychological and economic toll.
Pay equity and equality in the workplace remain maddeningly elusive. Today, a superstore cashier still faces obstacles to becoming a manager and being paid the same as male colleagues, whatever her status. Women with MBAs are unfairly evaluated and their odds of becoming the chief executive of a tech company are dismal.
Barriers to gender equality are in play whenever women’s rape kits are shelved or when they encounter processes founded in misogyny and boundless red tape trying to report sexual assaults at police stations or on college campuses.
These problems are often compounded by race, ethnicity, sexual identity, class and religion. Women of color experience all of these limits plus concern for family safety in the face of police wrongdoing. Since November, fears of permanent separation from families plague immigrant women, preventing them from getting a job or an education and in some cases trapping them in their homes.
And threats from anti-Muslim bigots or calls for automatic inclusions on government terrorist watch lists present invisible but very real obstacles to the daily movement of women who belong to religious minorities.
In 2016, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, commentators declared that feminism is over, lost or dead and so is social justice; women should move on. But what I witnessed after the hearing, when thousands of women demanded that our leadership in Washington reflect their experiences, gives me hope. I’m convinced that those who expect women to recede quietly will soon be disappointed.
On Jan. 21, 2017, women from all identities and circumstances will march in Washington and in cities around the globe in numbers too great for Trump to ignore. Yes, women are moving past the election, but not as spectators, as participants in our democracy - as patriots. That is cause for celebration.
Anita Hill is a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University.