Herman Cain accusers and Anita Hill: how do they compare?

Twenty years ago, it was Anita Hill's word against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. With Herman Cain, several women have charged him with sexual harassment, and public attitudes have changed.

Tracy Glantz/The State/AP
Anita Hill greets people Oct. 19 as she signs copies of her book, "Reimagining Equality" at a meeting of the "I Believe Anita Hill" group at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Her lecture was one of the events marking the 20th anniversary of her 1991 testimony before the U.S. Senate on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Herman Cain’s problems with alleged sexual harassment against women recall the episode 20 years ago when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, nominated to the United States Supreme Court, of the same offense. Ms. Hill was a young lawyer who had worked for Mr. Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Mr. Cain’s defenders (and the candidate himself) have raised the comparison with the phrase “high-tech lynching,” the same thing Mr. Thomas accused his critics of during his Senate confirmation hearings. And the other day at a campaign stop in Kalamazoo, Mich., Cain joked with a supporter that perhaps Ms. Hill would endorse him – something he later felt compelled to say was “in no way intended to be an insult.”

A day earlier, Cain had to apologize for referring to former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy,” a phrase many took to be borderline sexism.

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The differences in the Cain and Thomas cases are important.

In 1991, it was basically his word against hers, and Thomas was confirmed as associate justice of the Supreme Court in a rancorous and raw public episode that saw Ms. Hill vilified and slandered as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” by then-conservative firebrand David Brock (who has since admitted to “character assassination” in writing about Hill).

While Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators have personally attacked the women in Cain’s case (including comments on their appearance), it involves multiple accusers, several of whom filed formal complaints resulting in large financial payments.

“It is because of Anita Hill’s legacy that presidential candidate Herman Cain is having a much tougher time minimizing the charges of sexual harassment raised against him than he or his campaign advisers ever imagined,” blogs Anne Doyle at Forbes.com. Ms. Doyle is a consultant, speaker, and author of "Powering Up! How America's Women Achievers Become Leaders."

A lot has changed in two decades, Doyle writes, but not enough. 

“Sexual harassment in the workplace remains an issue,” she writes. “One in 10 women today are promised promotions or better treatment if they will be ‘sexually cooperative.’ And the female citizens and workers of this country are still shamefully under-represented at every level of political office, court systems and corporations. But thanks to the courage of leaders such as Anita Hill who dare to speak truth to power, we’re making progress.” 

These days, Anita Hill is a professor at Brandeis University and a lawyer specializing in civil rights and employment practices.

She’s on tour promoting her latest book “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home,” and while she has no comment on Cain himself, she does have things to say about today's response to sexual harassment charges compared to 20 years ago.

“I am proud that the issue is now front and center,” Hill told an audience of women in Detroit recently. “But much more needs to be done. Younger and younger girls are being harassed in the workplace. We must envision a workplace where sexual harassment does not exist.”

“Men now file 12 percent of the sexual harassment cases, which is more evidence that workplace harassment is about power,” Hill said.

And speaking as a member of Time magazine’s Person of the Year panel earlier this week, Hill said this:

“Twenty years ago the conversation was entirely different, I mean we all know that. But it has evolved, in the past 20 years, to where we are today. We have evolved tremendously in discussing these kinds of issues. And in some ways it’s just not simply the description of sort of he said-she said, just sort of throwing that out as a way to explain everything, no longer exists. I mean there is some deliberate inquiry and that’s what I think should continue to happen.”

It’s unlikely that Herman Cain will again make light of Anita Hill’s experience 20 years ago.

“I think if you look at the concerns we have about issues like sexual harassment, if you look at the tragedy at Penn State, if you look at how people feel in general about this kind of stuff, it’s not something to be joked about,” he said on the Laura Ingraham show on Friday.

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