Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Twenty-Five Years after Anita Hill: What Has Changed?

Carol Hardy-Fanta


Twenty-five years ago this month, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s deliberations on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court gripped the nation as law professor Anita Hill, a Black woman, was grilled by an all-White-male Senate committee about her allegations of sexual harassment by the nominee.

I still recall how, in those days – before live streaming to desktop computers (let alone smartphones) – boxy televisions were rolled in on big carts to offices at UMass Boston and across the country, where many of us were engrossed in the unfolding drama. The ensuing debates over race, gender, and political power roiled relationships among colleagues, family and friends for years to come.

With allegations of sexual assault by Donald Trump (and his campaign’s reminders of those that swirled around Hillary Clinton’s husband), it would seem that little has changed in politics: women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted by men in power are still silenced or, when they do speak up – as did Anita Hill twenty-five years ago – are ostracized.

At the same time, we should also remember that, however painful it was for her and for many of us watching, her brave testimony in front of the bank of all White men stimulated a record number of women to run for and be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 – what became known as the “Year of the Woman.” With race and gender taking center stage during this fall’s election, it behooves us to ask: to what extent has the racial and gender makeup of our elected political leaders changed over the past decades, and, if so, what difference has it made?

First, as shown in our forthcoming book, Contested Transformation: Race, Gender, and Political Leadership in 21st Century America (2016), there are signs that, just as the country’s population has become more racially diverse, people of color have made dramatic gains in their numbers elected to Congress, state legislatures, and local-level offices. The number of Black, Latino, Asian American, and American Indian women and men holding elected office, for example, stands at more than 12,000, compared to just a few hundred prior to the implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Second, while most of those elected in the 1992 “Year of the Woman” were White, in the decades since then the growth for people of color and for women in general has been driven almost exclusively by women of color. We find, for example, that in Congress, “the rate of change may have doubled for non-Hispanic White women, but it tripled for women of color”: in state legislatures, the transformation is even more dramatic: the number of White women state legislators grew by 17 percent, whereas the number of women of color more than doubled. In fact, although currently there is only one woman of color in the US Senate, Mazie Hirono (D-HI), that will change with the 115th congress: Kamala Harris, who is Black and Asian American (D-CA), is favored to win the seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer. (Even if she were to lose, there would still be another woman of color since she’s running against Latina congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, D-CA). There would be a historic fourth if Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who is Asian American prevails as expected against Mark Kirk (R-Ill).  In fact, with the exception of NEw Hampshire, where two white women are competing, in four of the five seats where a woman is predicted to win, a woman of color sworn in in January. These represent a historic shift in the composition of women in the US Senate.

Third, the appointment of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican background, to the Supreme Court not only doubled the number of women ever appointed, but would surely have been less likely under someone other than President Barack Obama.

Finally, with more women in the U.S. Senate — including two on the Senate Judiciary Committee — if the hearings were held today, the faces staring down at Anita Hill would not be those only of White men.

Of course, once the seemingly endless presidential race is decided, life will go on where people live: in their communities; and many local elections will be held this spring. As noted in the book, 96 percent of all elected officials in this country serve at the local level and wield considerable power over the lives of women and communities of color. In Contested Transformation, we also demonstrate the growth in the numbers of women and men of color serving in local elected offices across the country, and describe their impact: “Local elected officials oversee budgets totaling a trillion dollars or more every year and make critical hiring decisions, including those of particular concern to communities of color, such as police chiefs and school superintendents. Given that for centuries, people of color along with women of all races were deprived of their rights as equal citizens and excluded from political participation and representation, it is not an overstatement to describe recent progress made to local elective leadership and governance as transformational.” Although their numbers have also increased significantly, progress is not uniformly distributed across the country, including in majority-minority cities; people of color are still underrepresented as a share of their populations; and any changes toward gender and racial equality have not occurred without a struggle and are vulnerable to setbacks.

We are left then with another question: On November 8th will enough voters in this country reject the misogynistic, racist, and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of Donald Trump to break down the last political barrier for women in this country? If so, the historic presidency of Barack Obama will be followed by a different but equally historic milestone: the election of the first woman president in this nation’s 240-year history. If not, it may be because of women who are too young to remember or others who may have forgotten those days in October 1991 when no woman or person of color had ever served as President of the United States; just two women served in the US Senate (and none on the Judiciary Committee); and Anita Hill spoke “truth to power” – a power then held by all White men.

About The Author

Carol Hardy-Fanta

Carol Hardy-Fanta is Senior Fellow at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. From 2001 to 2012 she served as...

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