Anita Faye Hill began the weekend as the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment, a symbol of defiance against oppression. But her failure in the end to convince millions of Americans--and many senators--that she was telling the truth could discourage other women from making their complaints public, some legal experts say.
Hill's battle for credibility during Senate hearings into allegations of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas illustrates the potential pitfalls of challenging one's boss.
Hill's televised cross-examination "gives women an idea of how brutalized they will be when they complain," said Tony Mischel, co-director of the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation. "It's a problem with the system--it's open season on a woman's personal life."
To be sure, men and women are more aware of the problem of sexual harassment after three days of explicit and emotionally charged testimony. Women's groups report thousands of phone calls--not only from angry and relieved women, but from employers eager to adjust policies and training in order to avoid problems.
But while women are more aware of the problem, many are more reluctant to come forward and challenge their superiors and colleagues after watching the hearings, said Barbara Otto, a representative of 9 to 5, the National Assn. of Working Women.
"I have never seen such outrage among low income, low status women," she said. "But, though they are willing to call their senator to let him know their views, they feel that they can't file a complaint at their workplace. They say, 'I can't see my name dragged through the mud. I need those benefits. I've got kids to support.' "
Otto was unhappy with the conclusion of the hearings: "This sends a message to women that, one, sexual harassment is not a big deal. No. 2, we don't believe you. And if you complain, your integrity will be investigated and not the incident itself."
For attorney Carol Fuchs, the conclusion of the hearings remains as ambivalent as her feelings about her own experience with harassment.
"Initially, when she came forward I thought this is fantastic, women will come forward now. But toward the end I got sad and upset because deep-seated fears within us (that our characters will be attacked) . . . happened."
Fuchs says she chose not to make a formal complaint five years ago, when a senior partner at the law firm where she was a 23-year-old summer associate suggested she should grant sexual favors to clients and later exposed himself to her. She says she feared for her career.
Later, when other women brought complaints against the man, she came forward to corroborate them--after she was working at another firm. Today, after watching the hearings, she is not sure whether she would recommend that a young woman in that position should risk her career by speaking up.
"Watching Anita Hill, I understood all of her reasons (for not coming forward sooner)," Fuchs said.
But Terrie Hutton, who is bringing a sex and race discrimination case against General Telephone, said she was heartened by the hearings.
"I was very encouraged and very hopeful in watching the testimony," she said. "People are asking questions not asked before."
Her lawyer, Catherine Graham, said that, although Hutton's case does not directly involve sexual harassment, she urged Hutton to watch the hearings as "a tutorial in what to expect in cross-examination," especially in the attempts to suggest that Hill was "overemotional" or "fantasizing."
Graham also said she expects that the hearings will often come up in jury selection in sex harassment and discrimination cases, as lawyers for both plaintiffs and defendants use potential jurors' views on Thomas and Hill as a litmus test.
Hutton refused to trade silence for job security, a stand that many women still feel they cannot take. To those living on the edge of poverty, argue some advocates, the question of "career" versus taking an ethical stand is moot when they are simply struggling to survive.
A typical complaint of sexual harassment, Otto said, takes five or six years to investigate. "How many women have five to six years of their lives to spare?" she asks.
But William Schumer, who has suffered a series of demotions since he blew the whistle on abuses at Hughes Aircraft where he was a senior executive, argued that women must put themselves on the line.
If Hill suffered harassment, Schumer said, she should have come forward, whatever the cost--or remained silent.
"As a whistle-blower I have no sympathy," Schumer said. "It's a tough decision. If you see something you know is wrong, speak out or shut up. The bottom line is (that) right and wrong are simple, and if you know what's right you cannot do what's wrong."
He says he knows sexual harassment occurs and that it should not be tolerated.
"I think it's revolting, and (women) should stand up and say, 'I won't take it,' " he said. If she was harassed, Schumer says, by remaining silent "she shook hands with the devil and stayed with Thomas."
But Fuchs says things are not that simple. "I wish I had spoken out sooner, but that's easy to say now. It's hard to be the crusader."
Even when she did speak out to corroborate complaints of other women, Fuchs said, her mother was opposed. "My mom said, 'Why do you have to be the martyr?' She said, 'You've sacrificed your career and personal reputation.' I said 'I can't let this happen to someone else.' "