The New Year of the Woman

She was greeted with suspicion by men who doubted her claims of sexual harassment. Why was she just coming forward now? Did she have a political agenda? Was she making it up to get some cheap publicity – or just bitter because she had been rejected by a man? And really, who could believe that a man in such a powerful position – and seeking another, more powerful position – would be so crass and reckless as to engage in such inappropriate and perhaps illegal behavior?

The year was 1991, and the accuser, law professor Anita Hill, was testifying before the then all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, discussing how then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had made wildly inappropriate sexual comments to her when he was her boss at (ironically) the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas won confirmation to the high court, but the hearings served as a loud wake-up call for politicians and candidates, who were roundly accused of treating sexual harassment as a non-issue and treating its victims as liars or unstable. Women's anger over the hearings led to the "Year of the Woman" in 1992, when then-record numbers of women were elected to the House and Senate.

A quarter century later, another powerful man seeking an even more powerful job has been accused of sexual harassment and assault. And the allegations, greeted with outrage by some and defiant disbelief by others, has advocates and political players wondering: has the nation really evolved on the issue of sexual harassment and assault? Or is it true that some members of the political arena, as Hill's defenders claimed back in the 90s, still "just don't get it?" And will the Republican Party – which has been trying to bring more women into its fold, both as candidates and voters, be set back with female voters because of the allegations against its presidential pick?

"I do think the party has its work cut out," says Katie Packer, a Republican consultant whose all-female firm, Burning Glass Consulting, seeks to reach out to female voters for its clients. "The Democrats are going to do everything they can to say this isn't just Trump, that this is what Republicans have allowed and encouraged. It's going to take a very unified, aggressive effort by the party" to heal its relationship with female voters, says Packer, who is not a Trump supporter. But downticket Republicans candidates "can't afford to do it right now because they're counting on that [Trump] vote."

Attitudes towards sexual harassment and assault have indeed changed in the past quarter century advocates say – something that puts the GOP in a more difficult position as candidates are questioned about their party nominee's behavior. The grilling of Hill in 1991 was bipartisan, they note, while the attacks on Trump's accusers have come mainly from his camp and his party.

"I think on the one hand we've come very far since Anita Hill's allegations. The name of the game in 1991 was how many people could denigrate her and be disrespectful of her," says Judith Lichtman, senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women & Families Action Fund, who was active in pressing for hearings on Hill's allegations that year. Now, Lichtman says, there is more sensitivity to the issue both among the public and elected officials.

But the attacks on Trump's accusers – and the dismissal of the allegations as somehow not all that important – show that some things have not changed, she adds. "We've come very far but we have very far to go," Lichtman says.

Trump's accusers, ranging from a fellow passenger on a flight to a People Magazine interviewer, have been met with much the same treatment Hill got in 1991. Back then, Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., questioned Hill's motives, asking if she was "a scorned woman." Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., flapped his suit jacket lapel, saying he had letters from people warning the committee against "this woman" Hill, but that they were reluctant to come forward because "it gets all tangled up in this sexual harassment crap." And Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., at one point cast Thomas as the victim, asking a jurist who testified, "do you have any comment to make on the pain and the suffering that's been endured by Judge Thomas' family here?"

Such remarks would surely be widely denounced if they were made today by Senate Judiciary Committee members (not least because the panel now has two females, including California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was elected in the 1992 wave). But Trump and his surrogates have taken a 1991-esque tack. Trump has called them "horrible, horrible liars," and suggested he could not possibly have groped a woman seated next to him on a plane because she wasn't attractive enough to warrant his sexual interest. Trump surrogate A.J. Delgado, on MSNBC, said the media needed to move away from the harassment and assault allegations and focus on "the issues that really matter to the American people." Former GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, on the same network, said the allegations were meant to "take your eye off the ball." And when a female reporter attempted to press him on the issue, Carson said, "stop, stop, stop, stop, stop," and added, "hey, can you turn her microphone off, please?"

For veterans of the '91 hearings, the Trump defense sounds disturbingly like the attacks launched against Hill, representing a mindset they thought had been drastically altered since then. And, as in 1991, the episodes provoke a personal reaction from women who, as First Lady Michelle Obama noted in a recent speech, have been the target of creepy or aggressive behavior at work or on the street.

"I think for women across the country, [Trump's alleged] misbehavior and malfeasance bring up bad memories for millions of women," says Alliance for Justice president Nan Aron, who was also active in pressing for an investigation of Thomas's alleged harassment of Hill. "It's not just sexual assault, but every single woman in the country has experienced some form of [harassment]. For women, it resonates. It strikes a chord."

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., was one of a group of female House members who famously marched up the steps outside the Senate side of the Capitol to demand hearings on Hill's allegations. And while she sees progress in the way sexual assault and harassment complaints are treated, she believes the current episodes serve as a reminder of why so many women are indeed reluctant to come forward.

"None of Trump's actions and behavior change what we've accomplished. It doesn't make me think that Donald Trump is a reflection of the majority of America," Lowey says. But "it does signal that the system still doesn't protect women who are victims of powerful men with money."

"The outcry is broader" now than in 1991, and "the sense that it is reprehensible is broader," adds Yale Law School professor Judith Resnik, another veteran of the Hill-Thomas hearings. "The positive [change] between then and now is that there is a national consensus that this is inappropriate behavior for an adult in the workplace," she adds.

And this time, advocates and political operatives say, there is more likely to be an impact on the accused. While Thomas was confirmed to the high court, Trump is facing massive blowback in the polls – enough to deny him the presidency.

Clinton had long led among female voters, unsurprising, since women tend to be more Democratic than Republican. But there is evidence that her historic place as the first female major party presidential nominee is not the driving factor in her support among women. Millennial women, for example, favored Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.

Since the "Access Hollywood" video surfaced of Trump bragging about using his fame to grope women without consequence, the reality TV star has posted abominable ratings among female voters in the polls. A survey taken by PRRI/The Atlantic in late September, for example, had Clinton 15 points ahead of Trump among women. A poll taken in the midst of the release of the audio had Clinton besting him by 33 points among females. President Barack Obama beat GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 11 points among women, according to exit polls.

The episode has put the GOP in a similar, but exponentially worse position than it had after 2012 Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin said women could not get pregnant as a result of "legitimate rape." That remark – and fellow Republicans' tortured efforts to distance themselves from Akin's remarks while not undermining their own candidate – damaged Republicans beyond Missouri.

Since then, Republicans have made inroads among women, Packer notes. But Trump, she says, has set them back. "As a party, we have something to offer" women," Packer says. "To some degree, Trump has stopped us dead in our tracks." Only after November 8, she says, can they start anew.

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