Now, it might seem, is the golden age of female agency—a newly empowered era for women, or something approaching it, a time when cheeky porn stars taunt presidents on Twitter, fed-up movie actresses tell what producers did to them in hotel rooms and restaurant basements, and serial abusers suffer, at long last, some consequences for their acts. Somewhere, as I write this, a once-obscure psychologist named Christine Blasey Ford is asserting her right to tell her story in her own time in her own way—bartering with U.S. senators, staffers and lawyers about exactly how she will testify to her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party when she was 15 and he was 17, a charge Kavanaugh denies.
Amid the controversy over Ford’s much-anticipated public appearance tentatively set for this coming week, the precedent often invoked is the moment, almost exactly 27 years ago, when a little-known law professor named Anita Hill appeared before a Senate panel to testify to her own allegations that another conservative Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her, a charge that Thomas, too, denied. If you are looking for something to stream this weekend, you could do worse than to watch the full, riveting C-SPAN footage of the Hill-Thomas hearings, in which, for the first time in American history, the august walls of the Senate—and a watching nation—absorbed public talk of things like oral sex and pornography and male entitlement, so shocking then, so drearily familiar now.
In many ways, the climate for accusers is better in 2018 than it was in 1991. For one thing, there now exist four women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, compared with zero back when Hill appeared, a lone figure with a microphone and a glass of water, in the packed caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building. Thanks to the courage of victims and the work of reporters, the public attitude toward allegations of sexual assault and harassment has shifted from default skepticism toward cautious willingness to believe. There are more female lawyers, better and smarter preparation for women before they come forward. If nothing else, any victim preparing to talk about harassment or abuse knows, by now, to expect her credibility to be challenged and her morals impugned.
But much, alas, remains strikingly as it was. Some of the senators hearing Ford’s testimony, if she presents it, will be the same men who lined up across from Hill, and ended up confirming the man she said harassed her. Even now, any woman coming forward, particularly in an environment so charged and partisan, knows that the fury of an entire (and very furious) political movement will descend upon her. When it comes to a Supreme Court nomination, the stakes—the makeup of the highest court in the land, President Donald Trump’s ability to deliver the conservative court his base desires—are unimaginably high. Point being: Even now, even given the remarkable climate-change wrought by the #MeToo moment, we are seeing in real time how women can be intimidated by everything from the attacks they face to the constrictions placed on how they can tell their stories.
Any woman, like Ford, voicing allegations in such a pressure-cooker setting must know that her participation will be judged, that it will show up in her obituary someday, unbidden, as part of her life story—and part of the story of the nation. If you don’t believe that, ask Anita Hill, whose testimony altered her life’s course and exposed her in ways she couldn’t have imagined. Yet, that testimony has also stood the test of time. All those years ago, she foretold truths about human behavior that would not be fully acknowledged for a quarter-century.