It’s hard to believe that the recent #MeToo movement began only four months ago. I was on call for the BARCC hotline the first week that #MeToo started trending in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case going public. Many of us saw our timelines flooding with stories of harassment, abuse, and assault. This can be overwhelming to take in and process for anyone. My first night taking calls, I heard from multiple survivors who were remembering their own experience of abuse or assault and feeling hopeless seeing the vast number of people with similar experiences. Additionally, many survivors reported being both encouraged by people being believed and having such a groundswell of support, and angry that their own cases did not receive that kind of encouragement.
When we are inundated with so many stories of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault as well as the mistreatment of survivors who came forward, it can be hard to see a way forward. As more and more people are publicly outed as abusers and serial harassers, it’s natural to feel pessimistic and angry. Not only are we exposed to an overwhelming number of stories of abuse and assault, we are also hearing how authority figures and organizations protected offenders at the expense of survivors. It’s a challenging feat for us all to be flooded with these kinds of stories and still hold hope that our culture and communities can get better.
In these moments, I find it helpful to look to the people who have been working on the issue of sexual violence for a long time. While it’s painful to think about how long people have been doing this work—and the obstacles people still face—it gives me hope to think about how that hard work has created the progress we’re seeing today. For many, this is a moment in time where sexual violence is more present in media and people’s minds than ever before, and it’s easy to think that the movement began in October when it started receiving national media attention. In fact, the #MeToo movement began over 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke. Burke is an example of how many of the leaders in our current moment have been organizing around this issue for years.
Anita Hill is another great example of this. Those familiar with her story likely remember the televised Senate hearings during which she shared her story of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court justice nominee (now a Supreme Court justice). Hill faced a skeptical audience, including someone questioning her willingness to speak as evidence of her “zealoting a civil rights agenda.”
Unlike what we are beginning to see now, there were no real repercussions for Thomas after Hill came forward. Despite that frustrating lack of accountability, Hill so publicly sharing her story had a powerful impact that didn’t end with the hearings in 1991. The term “sexual harassment” was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University, but Hill’s testimony made the concept a household term.
Though she is most well known for that hearing in 1991, her work did not stop then. Hill went on to be a law professor who frequently speaks and writes about sexual harassment in the workplace. Most recently, she was appointed to serve as the head of a commission that will address sexual abuse in the entertainment industry. During a December 2017 panel organized by the National Women’s Law Center, she said, “I don’t think of 1991 and 2017 as isolated moments in history. I see them as part of an arc, and an arc that has been bending towards justice.”
Hill’s continued work on this issue speaks to all the people who have laid the groundwork for our current #MeToo moment. In its 45 years of existence, BARCC’s work has grown from an informal hotline to numerous services for survivors and communities. Our work has grown immensely in breadth and depth, and that would not have been possible without the commitment of people like Hill along the way. We can’t forget the people who came before us in the mission to end sexual violence, and we have to reexamine their trials and tribulations from the perspectives of where we are and what we’re seeing today. While there’s still a long way to go in ending sexual violence, it’s comforting to see Hill finally gain the platform that she earned in 1991.