Rachel del Valle | Not just ‘playing the victim’
Duly Noted | Sexually harassed women shouldn’t fear becoming ‘another Anita Hill’
November 7, 2011, 12:48 am·
Rachel del Valle
How much progress has been made in the past 20 years? While we’ve made the upgrade from cassettes to mp3s, American culture seems to be lagging when it comes to sexual harassment. Given the way past charges of improper conduct against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain are unfolding, it seems that leggings aren’t the only thing back from the ’90s.
The timing of all this is uncanny. October marked the 20th anniversary of the Clarence Thomas hearings in which Anita Hill publicly testified against the Supreme Court candidate, bringing the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace to the forefront of public awareness. As Cain’s episode shows, however, it’s possible to overestimate the influence of seemingly game-changing moments like these.
A third woman has come forward to accuse Cain of lewd behavior while she was working at the National Restaurant Association, of which Cain was the president in the 1990s. I use the phrase “come forward” loosely because she has chosen to remain anonymous. According to The New York Times, the accuser’s lawyer said of his client, “She has a life to live and a career, and she doesn’t want to become another Anita Hill.”
Something about that chafes my millennial generation idea of feminism. Why should a woman have to choose between being successful and being an active dissenter of sexual misconduct? Why, in 2011, should it have to be one or the other? Despite my initial disappointment, I can understand why Cain’s third’s-a-charm accuser is choosing to remain faceless. The media is harsh to women who speak up.
Take, for example, the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which came to a brusque end this summer. The accusations of rape made by a hotel employee against the former International Monetary Fund head fizzled into a messy scandal. In the end, the woman who came out against him, Nafissatou Diallo, a 33-year-old Guinean immigrant, was left with a reputation as tainted as — if not more than — Kahn’s.
Just a few weeks ago, French journalist Tristane Banon, who also accused Kahn of attempted rape, decided to drop her case, citing legal troubles. In an interview on French TV channel Canal Plus, Banon said she received “messages of support and thanks” during her debacle. That kind of reaction is likely what has led Banon to adopt the role of activist. She will, among other things, fight to extend the statute of limitations on sexual assault.
Banon has essentially become another Anita Hill. But her reception is different. Hill, who received hate mail and death threats along with calls of solidarity, became, and remains, a highly polarizing figure. Banon seems to have tipped the scale. If this turnaround of cultural reaction can occur in France, why can’t it happen here?
I’m not saying that Cain’s accusers are required to become martyrs, transforming their lives into speechmaking and book-writing on being a woman in a man’s world. They shouldn’t have to do that. They shouldn’t be defined by a single experience they couldn’t control. But they can control their reactions. That’s why they shouldn’t be afraid to assert their power fully in order to ensure that a potential president’s questionable character is revealed to the public. If these women continue to hide their identities, they will soften the blow against someone who deserves the full force of consequences. Although the first two women who pressed charges years ago are subject to a gag order from the NRA and were issued $35,000 and $45,000 settlements, respectively, the third accuser has no legal restrictions. She never formally pressed charges. If she were to come forward publicly, it would add weight to the charges that Cain has flippantly refuted.
I find the fact that women still have to worry about the stigma that comes with being the victim of sexual harassment a bit discomfiting, to say the least. What’s the point of rhetoric that pushes against sexual overstepping if women are too intimidated to speak up when it matters?
As college students, we should contribute to shaping our generation into one that doesn’t hush victims. I’m not going to say, “Get involved,” but at least get thinking. Don’t be judgmental; don’t be dismissive; don’t think wearing a short skirt gives someone the right to be a creep. That kind of thinking sends us back another 20 years — and no one wants to see the return of shoulder pads.
Rachel del Valle is a College sophomore from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Duly Noted appears every Monday.