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For Years, Anita Hill Was A 'Canary In The Coal Mine' For Women Speaking Out

Nov 30, 2017
Originally published on December 1, 2017 2:37 pm

Stories about sexual harassment in the workplace have dominated the news cycle this fall, but New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer remembers a time not that long ago when even the term "sexual harassment" felt new.

"Most of us really didn't know much about sexual harassment," she says. "Many of us had experienced it, but we didn't really know the name for it or how to handle it."

That started to change in October 1991, when a law professor named Anita Hill testified before a Senate panel that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Thomas had been Hill's boss at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Though Hill's testimony didn't prevent Thomas from being confirmed, it did help bring the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the open. "I feel that it was the moment when — to use the phrase of today — when the country began to be 'woke' to the subject of sexual harassment," Mayer says.

Mayer went on to co-write the 1994 book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, which detailed Thomas' fractious Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Mayer believes it might be time to reinvestigate Hill's allegations against Thomas, and New York magazine journalist Rebecca Traister agrees. But Traister is cautious about how much has really changed since Hill testified before the Senate.

"Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court; Donald Trump was elected president, despite the stories of 15 women who claim that he assaulted them," Traister says. "So the notion that we're now in this moment where everybody's going to pay is disproven by the guy sitting in our White House."


Interview Highlights

On the idea of reinvestigating the sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas

Jane Mayer: I feel like this is a ripe area to go back and re-report. Some of the women may feel that they can speak out now in a way they didn't before. Over the years I've heard of other women too who are sitting on their stories about Clarence Thomas but haven't felt that they could afford to speak up. ...

I have to say as someone who covers politics in Washington — despite everything that we've seen in the last few months about this change in thinking about zero tolerance for sexual harassment — maybe I'm too cynical, but I have grave doubts about whether anyone's going to really want to reopen the Clarence Thomas story in a serious way, or subject him to recall or potential impeachment hearings. I think it would be a bloody moment politically.

There was always a race aspect of this, too, that in a way kind of protected him. And he played that big in saying that he was being subjected to a "high-tech lynching," is the way he put it. I think it's still a very fraught area and I doubt anyone is going to want to move on it.

Rebecca Traister: I think we would all profit from a reinvestigation of the case, but I can't envision a future where there's any result that satisfies. ... It feels, on the one hand, as though we've been through these two months in which we're seeing really powerful people lose jobs, in some cases; where we're seeing women's claims taken very seriously; where people are worrying, in fact, that all the claims are being taken seriously. ... But that we're having this moment, in part, because up until, like, five minutes ago, women's claims weren't taken seriously.

On how the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee responded to Hill's testimony

Mayer: She was just dragged through the dirt. They accused; they questioned her motives; they suggested that she was something they called an "erotomaniac"; they questioned whether she was a woman scorned, whether she had personal motives, whether she had professional motives, political motives. ... They basically questioned her sanity and made her out to be a liar and potentially a lunatic. ...

She served as kind of a canary in the coal mine for women about what happens when you do speak up against a powerful man, even though she hadn't even asked to speak up.

On Sen. Ted Kennedy's conspicuous silence during the hearings

Traister: Ted Kennedy ... remained famously very silent throughout those hearings, and in part that's because, in this question that sort of mixes sexual power abuses and professional power abuses, Ted Kennedy had his own questionable history around women. ... At the time of the Anita Hill hearings, Ted Kennedy's nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was on trial for rape in Florida for an event, an alleged rape, that took place on a night that had begun with William Kennedy Smith drinking with Ted Kennedy.

There was this sense that Kennedy's own behaviors in some way muzzled him in this political moment when he, as a member of the Judiciary Committee and by many measures the liberal conscience of the Senate, should have been more vocal.

On the importance of distinguishing between consensual and nonconsensual workplace relationships

Mayer: I don't want to see the workplace become overridden with a kind of Taliban-like mentality that the sexes have to be separated and any kind of sexual behavior between colleagues is something that is terrible.

Maybe I say that partly because ... about 35 years ago I was interviewed by someone for a job at The Washington Post and for 25 years I've been married to him. I ended up not taking the job, but that's how I met him.

A lot of women and men meet each other through work; it's where we spend most of our time. Again, this gets back to the subject of consent. There's nothing improper about getting involved — it's a little complicated maybe, but it's not necessarily a situation that is of harassment.

On why Mayer and many of her female colleagues in journalism didn't report harassment when they experienced it early in their careers

Mayer: As someone who was in the workplace now for — God, I don't know — 40 years or something, it was so rampant. It was something that we all dealt with, and there's so many men who have so much to atone for, if you go back in time. Most of us just had to cope some way or another. It was just kind of how things were. ...

I think the answer is kind of, this exaggerates it a little bit, but it's a little bit like asking the slaves why they didn't complain about the masters. The power was on the other side, and it went all the way up through to the top of these companies, and you really had very little power as a young female working almost exclusively for men. There was kind of nobody to complain to, including HR departments.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore and President Trump are just some of the high-profile men recently accused of sexual misconduct or sexual assault. Women, at least some women, are being heard now when they come forward. This shakeup is raising a lot of questions for both women and men.

We're going to talk about some of those questions and look back at a turning point in how sexual harassment allegations have been handled, the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings and Anita Hill's testimony that he sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

I have two guests. Jane Mayer is a staff writer at The New Yorker who writes about politics and co-wrote the 1994 book "Strange Justice: The Selling Of Clarence Thomas." It was an investigation into Anita Hill's allegations and into what went on behind the scenes of the hearing. Mayer's latest book is "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

Rebecca Traister writes about feminist issues for New York magazine. She's the author of a book about Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign called "Big Girls Don't Cry." Traister's latest book is "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation."

Jane Mayer, Rebecca Traister, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start by going back to the Clarence Thomas hearings and seeing how the allegations of sexual harassment were treated then. First, let me ask you both, do you see that as a turning point in women's issues and in the question of sexual harassment, and how do we handle it as a culture?

JANE MAYER: I certainly do. This is Jane speaking. I mean, I feel that it was the moment when, you know, to use the phrase of today, when the country began to be woke to the subject of sexual harassment. And having lived through it at the time and covered it at the time, I have to say, it was - at that point, it was revelatory. Most of us really didn't know much about sexual harassment. We - many of us had experienced it, but we didn't really know the name for it or how to handle it or that there was a way around it. And I think Anita Hill, by making her case and speaking so straightforwardly about it, really educated the country.

GROSS: Rebecca?

REBECCA TRAISTER: Yeah. I've always seen it as - I know that, for me, I was in high school at the time, and it was one of the moments that sort of awakened me. I mean, I guess that's a riff on the notion of being woke to how feminism's contemporary application was being made visible and understood in my life. The Anita Hill hearings was an absolute - they were electrifying to me and I think to so many. And I have been thinking about them so much recently over the past year, even before we had this cycle of sexual harassment revelations, because I saw them as a real moment that this political moment was echoing.

Anita Hill made her allegations. She lost. She experienced a sort of material loss. Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court, but in the wake of her testimony and the conversation about sexual harassment that it provoked and in the visuals of this all-male all-white Senate Judiciary Committee sitting in often very cruel judgment of her, it provoked a lot of women to get into electoral politics.

And the very next year, 1992, was the year of the woman. That's what it was called at the time. Four women were elected to the Senate, including Carol Moseley Braun - the first African-American woman ever elected to the Senate - Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray. And Patty Murray specifically spoke about how it was anger about Anita Hill's treatment that made her decide to run for the Senate.

And what we've seen this year in the wake of something that has a lot of echoes of that period, Hillary Clinton's loss to Donald Trump. It is a material loss with real long-lasting consequences - the shaping of policy. Justice Clarence Thomas has helped to shape the law over the past 20 years. And yet, one of the things we've seen is a reinvigoration of womens' interest in getting into electoral politics.

Emily's List has said that there are 19,000 women who've expressed interest in running for office. That's totally unprecedented in the year since Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton. And I think that's another sort of way in which that Anita Hill moment was a touchstone. And that's even before we get into the re-energized conversation around sexual harassment and how we should approach it and what the consequences should be.

GROSS: So let's revisit what happened to Anita Hill, what she alleged and what was said about her. Let's start by hearing an excerpt of that 1991 hearing. And this is when Senator Joe Biden, who was the head of the Judiciary Committee, was questioning Anita Hill, asking her to lay out her allegations against Clarence Thomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: What was that incident again?

ANITA HILL: The incident with regard to the Coke can that's spelled out in my statement?

BIDEN: Describe it once again for me, please.

HILL: The incident involved his going to his desk - getting up from a work table, going to his desk, looking at this can and saying, who put pubic hair on my Coke?

BIDEN: Was anyone else in his office at the time?

HILL: No.

BIDEN: Was the door closed?

HILL: I don't recall.

BIDEN: Are there any other incidents that occurred in his office with just - in his office, period?

HILL: There is - I recall at least one instance in his office at the EEOC where he discussed some pornographic material or he brought up the substance or the content of pornographic material.

BIDEN: Again, it's difficult, but for the record, what substance did he bring up in this instance in his - at EEOC in his office? What was the content of what he said?

HILL: Well, this was a reference to an individual who had a very large penis. And he used the name that he had been referred to in the pornographic material.

BIDEN: Do you recall what it was?

HILL: Yes, I do. The name that was referred to was Long Dong Silver.

GROSS: OK. I think it's fair to say never before had that kind of language and information been heard at a confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court justice. Jane Mayer, people were asking about Anita Hill the same questions that a lot of people are asking today like, well, this happened to you. If you're alleging a man did this to you, why did it take you so long to come forward? They said that about Anita Hill, but she didn't exactly come forward. Jane, would you describe why she testified in the first place at the hearing?

MAYER: Well, so she was in many ways a reluctant witness, and you can hear it in her voice in that testimony really, the heavy sigh and the kind of hesitation. When these things happened to her, she was a lawyer working at the EEOC, of all places.

GROSS: That's the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

MAYER: That's right. And so she was working with Clarence Thomas as her boss. And she felt that he had harassed her and created a hostile workplace, spoke frequently about sex and pornography and matters that made her very, very uncomfortable. She told some of her friends. She confided in people. And eventually, some of these confidants leaked word of this to the Judiciary Committee when the Senate was confirming Clarence Thomas or having its hearings to confirm him. And so word reached the Congress without her having, you know, called them.

She was forced into testifying. And eventually, she was subpoenaed to testify. And so she felt once that she was asked, she had a responsibility to tell the truth. And she went forward and testified. But it was very uncomfortable, and that's what you can hear in her voice. And at that point, what you have to understand, I mean, despite what we're saying about how it was a turning point and so much good came out of it, it also served as an example of what bad could come out of a woman who spoke up at that period.

GROSS: Yeah. She was basically put on trial herself.

MAYER: She very much was. I mean, and she was just dragged through the dirt. They accused - they questioned her motives. They suggested she was something that they called an erotomaniac. They questioned whether she was a woman scorned, whether she had personal motives, whether she had professional motives, political motives. Was this because, you know, she was trying to stop him because he was anti-abortion? I mean, everything in the book was thrown at this woman.

GROSS: Could we mention one more? Could we mention one more?

MAYER: Sure.

GROSS: John Doggett, a former coworker of hers, testified against her on behalf of Clarence Thomas and said that she had berated him. She had berated John Doggett for not asking her out and that he said she had fantasized that he was interested in her. And if she fantasized that, she could have fantasize all the things she saying about Clarence Thomas, too.

MAYER: They basically questioned her sanity and made her out to be a liar and potentially a lunatic. And they had worse stuff in the wings that they didn't bring in from former students who - you know, when I went and did this book with Jill Abramson, it took us three years. And we dug into all of the evidence against her.

And some of them were the - these former students in Oklahoma who'd kind of had a joke and claimed that when hair from her head had dropped onto a paper, again, that it was pubic hair and that she was trying to send them, you know, coded sexual notes. And it was racist. It was vile. And so she served as kind of a canary in the coal mine for women about what happens when you do speak up against a powerful man, even though she hadn't even asked to speak up.

GROSS: Three women came forward ready to testify in support of Anita Hill, and they had their own stories about Clarence Thomas. But Joe Biden, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, decided not to allow them to speak. Why not?

MAYER: Well, this is - I mean, it's so important because, basically, what people were saying is, oh, it's a he-said-she-said kind of story where it's just a matter of only two people knew and you had to decide whose credibility you believed. And so what the record really shows is there was, in this case, as there is in so many cases, a pattern of behavior.

There were other women. And the fact that they were ready to come forward and testify against Clarence Thomas saying they, too, had experienced uncomfortable and potentially sort of sexually harassing behavior from him, everyone knew - who was dealing with their potential testimony - that it probably would have stopped Clarence Thomas from getting confirmed. So these were really explosive kinds of witnesses, potentially. And none of them actually got a chance to tell their stories in front of the world.

There was kind of a kabuki dance going on in the wings, where, basically, none of these senators really wanted these women to testify. They found it uncomfortable. They didn't want to live with the consequences. And Biden, among them - his staffers have told me in the years subsequently that he really just - he didn't want to be responsible for stopping Clarence Thomas from joining the Supreme Court.

GROSS: Why not?

MAYER: Well, I think, you know, you have to, again, go back through this time in this time capsule. There was a feeling, I was told, that some of the allegations against Clarence Thomas were that he was an avid fan of pornography. He'd spoken about it since his law school days to people - that he kept a huge collection of Playboys around in his home.

And there was this sense that Biden had that this was a private - a man's private area, and a man should be able to do what he wanted to do in his private time and it shouldn't be pertinent. So there was that kind of issue. But, of course, at the time, Biden was already quite ambitious and thinking of running for president. And one of his staffers told me, in more recent years, that he just didn't want it on his shoulders that he had stopped a black man from being confirmed to the Supreme Court.

GROSS: My guests are Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Rebecca Traister who writes for New York Magazine. We'll be back after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATIAS RIVERO'S "MORE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about this turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. We're also looking back at an earlier turning point - the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearing when Anita Hill testified he'd sexually harassed her. My guests are Rebecca Traister who writes about feminist issues for New York Magazine and New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, who co-wrote a 1994 book investigating the Clarence Thomas hearing.

So when you reinvestigated this story, you talked to a lot of people who did not testify, who had information that basically corroborated Anita Hill's story. Would you share some of that with us?

MAYER: Well, yeah, and I think - to this day, I think if those witnesses had testified, Clarence Thomas would not have been confirmed to the Supreme Court. So it's a really momentous hearing. And the fact that they didn't testify was a tremendous decision that really mattered.

There was someone named Angela Wright who had worked with Clarence Thomas and had subsequently gone on to become a deputy metro editor at a newspaper in North Carolina. And she'd written a kind of a trial column about her own experiences with Clarence Thomas that was not for broad publication, but it got around inside her newspaper and eventually was sent to the Judiciary Committee. And it - in it, she said she totally believed Anita Hill because she had similar kinds of experiences. So she was also subpoenaed and waiting in the wings to testify, but she never got her chance to.

She had a corroborator of her own. She had often spoken of her problems with Clarence Thomas as a boss to someone else who worked with her whose name was Rose Jordain, who was an older woman who was actually in the hospital at the time of the hearings but was so gung-ho to testify that she was cutting down the painkillers she was taking and saying, wheel me in on a gurney. I want to be there. But they never called her - never brought her in.

There were several other women who said they were ready to testify - they'd been at the EEOC - and that they felt that Clarence Thomas' general attitude was one that he kind of owned the women at the EEOC. And they were there for him to, you know, treat as he felt like it. I mean, I remember Angela Wright talked about how Clarence Thomas would say things to her like, what's your bra size? It looks to me like a double D. Or - you know, things like that - talk about how they, you know, how they looked in different outfits. And he had said - according to Angela Wright, he had said to her, you will be dating me. So there was kind of this blurring of him being her supervisor and him saying you're going to come go out with me.

So anyway, all of this testimony, I think, would have sunk him. But none of these people got their day in the limelight. Some of them got to include some of their statements at the very, very end. In the wee hours of the morning, it was added to the congressional record. But they were never seen, and they never were questioned. And they never kind of had their moment.

GROSS: And in your investigation of the story, you spoke to a video store owner where Clarence Thomas was a customer. What did he tell you?

MAYER: I think that reporting was done by The Washington Post, but what the video store owner had said was that Clarence Thomas was a regular in the store and that - in fact, I think he recalled Clarence Thomas taking out this particular movie that Anita Hill had talked about, this Long Dong Silver. I interviewed - and Jill Abramson and I interviewed so many people from Clarence Thomas' law school days, and his earlier years and even in the years at the EEOC who remembered him being an avid fan of pornography and talking about it.

And, you know, it's not to, again, say that somebody reading Playboy is doing something wrong, but it's just that it suggested a pattern of behavior that Clarence Thomas said under oath he did not have. He expressed outrage that anyone would say he had an interest in pornography. And then it turned out, as Jill Abramson and I looked into it, that for years, he'd talked about his interest in pornography to people.

So the issue became a question of whether - if you're looking back - whether he testified under oath falsely. You know, did he perjure himself in order to join the Supreme Court? And I think, you know, that that question hangs over him still, and in light of all the recent developments, I kind of wonder whether anyone will revisit it.

GROSS: Do you wonder that too, Rebecca?

TRAISTER: I do wonder it. I mean, I think that there have been moments where...

GROSS: And this is Rebecca Traister speaking.

TRAISTER: I think there have been moments where this question about Clarence Thomas' - has come up again. He has, you know, provided the crucial vote in his years on the Supreme Court in cases that do involve sexual harassment, that involve assault protections on campus, that involve, certainly, reproductive autonomy. You know, he was part of the decision to gut the Voting Rights Act.

He's had such an impact, and I think that the questions of whether or not he should've been on that court to begin with have occasionally popped up again. This would certainly be a moment to bring more scrutiny to them.

The other thing that I keep thinking about as I listen to you recall this, Jane, is the question of how systemic this all was. You're describing how Biden was anxious to protect Thomas' personal predilections, to not make this an investigation into his - you know, the sort of - the man's private appreciation for porn, and yet, not affording the same fears and anxieties and protections to Anita Hill's private life, which was used in part to argue that she didn't have standing when it came to making the accusations against Thomas.

I think also of the people who were on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including perhaps the person who should've been loud in his defense of Anita Hill, and that's Ted Kennedy, who remained, famously, very silent throughout those hearings. And in part, that's because in this question that sort of mixes sexual power abuses and professional power abuses, Ted Kennedy had his own questionable history around women.

And at the time - and Jane, you can correct me if I'm wrong on this timing, but I think I'm correct. At the time of the Anita Hill hearings, Ted Kennedy's nephew William Kennedy Smith was on trial for rape in Florida for an event - an alleged rape that took place on a night that had begun with William Kennedy Smith drinking with Ted Kennedy.

And there was this sense that Kennedy's own personal behaviors in some way muzzled him in this political moment when he, as a member of the Judiciary Committee and, you know, by many measures, the liberal conscience of the Senate, should have been more vocal and should've had an impact on how these hearings went and how Anita Hill was treated, and who was called...

MAYER: That's absolutely right. That's absolutely right. And there was a famous "Saturday Night Live" skit that came out of this where they had - they showed Kennedy - Senator Kennedy sitting there with a brown paper bag on his head because he basically couldn't speak to this subject.

GROSS: My guests are Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Rebecca Traister, who writes for New York Magazine. We'll talk about current sexual harassment allegations, and about due process and trial by Internet after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU, KEVIN HAYS AND PATRICK ZIMMERLI'S "GENERATRIX")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about this turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. We're also looking back at an earlier turning point - the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearing when Anita Hill testified he'd sexually harassed her. I have two guests. Jane Mayer is a New Yorker staff writer who co-wrote a 1994 book investigating the Thomas hearing. Her latest book is called "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Rebecca Traister writes about feminist issues for New York Magazine. Her latest book is "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation."

There's a new allegation against Clarence Thomas by a woman - a lawyer - I think she was a lawyer - who had been a dinner guest at his home in 1999. Her name is Moira Smith, and she said that Thomas grabbed her buttocks multiple times during this dinner in 1999. It was a dinner party at his home. She's now general counsel to Enstar Natural Gas Company, and she was one of the Truman scholars who had been invited to Thomas' home that evening. What should journalists be doing now regarding that story?

MAYER: I feel like this is a ripe area to go back and re-report, that people may feel - some of the women may feel that they can speak out now in a way they didn't before. Over the years, I've heard of other women too who are sitting on their stories about Clarence Thomas but haven't felt that they could afford to speak up. It would be interesting.

I mean, I have to say as someone who covers politics in Washington, despite everything that we've seen in the last few months about this, you know, sort of the change in thinking about zero tolerance for sexual harassment, maybe I'm too cynical, but I have grave doubts about whether anyone is going to really want to reopen the Clarence Thomas story in a serious way or subject him to recall or potential impeachment hearings. I think it would be a bloody moment and - politically - and, you know, there was always a race aspect of this, too, that in a way kind of protected him. And he played that big in saying that he was being subjected to - a high-tech lynching is the way he put it. And I think it's still a very fraught area, and I doubt anyone's going to want to move on it.

GROSS: Yeah, but he said he was being subjected to a high-tech lynching. The person speaking out against him was an African-American woman who was much less powerful than he was.

MAYER: Absolutely right. But it struck such terror in those white senators who were confirming him that it changed the whole dynamic of the hearings at the time.

GROSS: Rebecca, do you agree that it's unlikely that the Clarence Thomas case would be reopened in spite of this latest allegation and other quiet allegations circulating in Washington?

TRAISTER: I do agree. I think that we would all profit from a reinvestigation of the case. But I can't envision a future where there's any result that satisfies. And I think one of the things about this moment that we have to remember because it feels, on the one hand, as though we've been through these two months in which we're seeing really powerful people lose jobs in some cases, where we're seeing women's claims taken very seriously, where people are worrying in fact that all the claims are being taken seriously - though I don't know that there's that much evidence of that - but that we're having this moment in part because up until, like, five minutes ago, women's claims weren't taken seriously.

Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Donald Trump was elected president despite the stories of 15 women who claim that he assaulted them. So the notion that now we're in this moment where everybody is going to pay is disproven by the guy sitting in our White House. There is not - it may feel very briefly right now as though women have all this power and we can kind of right the wrongs. But structurally, there's not a lot of evidence that that's the case. It feels - it still to me feels very threatening, very Sisyphean, this notion that in any way there is reasonable hope that a reinvestigation of Clarence Thomas' - the allegations against Clarence Thomas would result in his removal from the court, you know, and certainly not in the reversal of all the decisions that he's been a part of for the 20 years on it. And I think that that's important to remember too.

There are these competing feelings right now. One is that it's kind of women are being believed around every corner and these guys are falling like dominoes. But this moment is very small compared to the history and the contemporary pattern of men getting powerful jobs and keeping them. And I think that we have to remember that.

GROSS: Jane, you recently spoke with Anita Hill and reported on that in The New Yorker. What did she tell you about how the sexual harassment cases are being handled now?

MAYER: Well, she made some great points, I thought, and one of them was that the reason she felt that the women who have come forward against Harvey Weinstein in particular were believed and why that seemed to be such a turning point was those women - many of his accusers have power, almost commensurate, maybe more so than his. They're famous movie actresses. They are stars. They're rich. They're beautiful. They're known. They're beloved.

And so the public listened to their stories and believed them because they couldn't say, oh, well, they must want something or they're, you know, they're trying to bring him down for some reason because these are women who have greater success in some ways than Harvey Weinstein himself does. And so their narrative became believable to the public. And in a way, it illustrated how much of the sexual harassment subject really is about power. And so often the accusers, or the women, have so little power that they're easily discounted or smeared.

TRAISTER: I'd love to add to that, that I think that Professor Hill's point speaks to the larger inequalities of this moment too because we see these stories happening, but they're happening in extremely elite professions, in part because of exactly that point that Jane and Professor Hill have made, which is that the women who are coming forward with their stories are sort of by definition connected to social and media networks, have degrees of security - economic or professional security - which is not to say that what they're doing isn't risky. It is still and they're coming forward in armies with groups so that there are many of them. It's not just one individual accuser. And in fact, when there is one individual accuser, they're much less likely to be believed.

And yet, it is still happening in fields and in economic tiers that are very, very high up the chain. And what we're not hearing about are some of the industries where sexual harassment and in many cases sexual assault claims are rampant, in tipped industries, in fast-food industries, low-wage jobs, minimum-wage jobs, the hotel industry. The industries where the potential complainants have no economic security, have very little power to begin with, are the ones in which we're least likely to hear their stories. And those stories are going to be just as rampant if not more than in the industries that we're seeing so much coverage of.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Jane Mayer and Rebecca Traister. Let's take a short break. We'll talk some more right after. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about all forms of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexual assault, all the new charges about it and what does that mean. How do we deal with this as a culture? My guests are Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote a book about the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings and co-wrote a 1994 book that basically reinvestigated the Anita Hill story. Rebecca Traister writes about feminist issues. She wrote a book about Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign. Lately she's been writing about sexual harassment. And she writes for New York Magazine and The Cut.

So let's talk about what's going on in our profession, which is journalism. And has anybody actually written a list of all the people recently alleged to have committed acts of sexual harassment or assault?

MAYER: Well, I've tried. I'm not sure it's a complete list. But I...

TRAISTER: Why don't you go? And I'll see if I can fill any others in.

MAYER: OK, so I've counted 10 men - Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Oreskes, David Corn, Charlie Rose, Glenn Thrush, Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin. Oh, that's nine because I counted Lauer twice since it happened today.

TRAISTER: (Laughter) That's what I - that's my list as well.

GROSS: OK. So do you know most of the men who have been accused?

MAYER: I do, yeah. I think I know all but O'Reilly. Basically I've either worked with them or know them personally.

GROSS: So how has that affected your comprehension of what is going on?

MAYER: I mean, I find this area very fraught, uncomfortable in some ways, you know, satisfying in some ways to see some people finally get - you know, have time catch up with them. And then other people I feel have been kind of unfairly caught up in the moment. And I think it's made me want to see some kind of clarification of the various categories and the various rules.

What matters to me most is that kind of the fundamental building block is consent, that women give sexual consent to whoever they're involved with. And then I think the other issue that's very important is that what matters more is what happens in the workplace and particularly when there's a supervisor involved with an underling because then there's a power imbalance.

And so what we've got is a kind of a mishmash of a lot of male journalists, some of whom were accused of acting improperly in the workplace, most of them - one or two of them outside of the workplace. Most of them had power and supervisory authority but not all of them. Some of them were involved in things that I would consider out-and-out sexual assault, and others were involved in behavior that I think is more about creating a hostile workplace. And all of these different types of categories really ought to be treated differently if there was a fair process.

GROSS: You said if there is a fair process. Do you think there is not a fair process?

MAYER: I'm worried about whether the Internet constitutes due process. I mean, it's scary for me in a way as someone who is a supporter of civil liberties to think that there could be kind of just mob opinion that would take down somebody and deprive them of their job without them having a chance to confront their accusers and sometimes not even knowing the names of their accusers. It could go badly I think. And so I mean, I think there are a lot of reasons to be concerned.

GROSS: Rebecca, what do you think?

TRAISTER: Well, I share the anxieties about the civil liberties aspect of this. And yes, there is a degree to which I worry about category collapse, though I think that most people do understand that there is a difference between a come-on in the workplace versus something like the kind of stuff that Harvey Weinstein has been alleged to have done - violent rape.

I think one of the reasons that we're talking about this huge variety of trespass in the same category and yet we don't always have the language to express how these things are different is because too often we see it through a sexual lens. We're talking about it as a sexual crime. And therefore, how can an awkward come-on in a workplace be anything like nonconsensual masturbation or rape, which some of these guys are accused of doing? And of course, they're not.

But I think we have to be clearer in talking about the fact - and Jane just got at this - that these are workplace harms. This is professional, economic harm done to women in workplaces. Now, in some of the more extreme cases, they may also be sex crimes. But part of what we're talking about is a series of behaviors that really run from very minor to very serious that when taken as a whole constitute a range of behaviors that women in the public-professional sphere have been forced to spend time and energy within their careers working around and navigating and that has done them damage professionally.

And the example - I actually said this to a friend of mine, who was high up in the media, who was asking about this a couple of weeks ago - who said, come on; you know, the dirty joke told at the office - that's not really that bad. And right, OK, I agree. And the thing I keep wanting to stress is that if a guy tells a joke, a dirty joke or an offensive joke in a staff meeting, the harm done to a woman who is in that staff meeting, for instance, is not in the joke itself. It's that her reaction to the joke, her response to it can then contribute to her professional future.

Is she going to be liked less by her colleagues and her bosses? Is she going to be viewed as a threat because she doesn't play along? The harm isn't in the initial offense. The harm is in the accumulated energy that women have to spend navigating this stuff through so many stages of their careers. And so that's why part of my anxiety about this moment is that the conversations we're having too often become about the consequences for the accused, right? Is Al Franken going to resign? Matt Lauer was fired overnight.

We're talking about the consequences for the accused, which I think often are coming too quickly before full investigations have been done. And we're not talking about the bigger picture that's being revealed, which is the large, structural, systematic realities of how women's professional lives are lived versus how men's professional lives have been lived.

MAYER: One of the things I have to say is that, you know, I don't want to see the workplace become sort of overridden with a kind of a Taliban-like mentality that the sexes have to be separated and that any kind of sexual behavior between colleagues is something that is terrible. And maybe I say that partly because - I have to say it must been about 35 years ago where I was interviewed by someone for a job at The Washington Post. And for 25 years, I've been married to him and that's (laughter) - my husband was someone who - I ended up not taking the job, but that's how I met him.

And a lot of women do meet people and men meet each other through work. It's where we spend most of our time. And again, this gets back to the subject of consent. You know, do you feel that, you know, if - there's nothing improper about getting involved. It's a little complicated maybe, but it's not necessarily a situation that is harassment.

GROSS: Rebecca, you recently wrote that men you know are coming to you and asking for your - I don't know what - advice, explanations. What are they asking?

TRAISTER: Absolution. Well, they're asking me all kinds of things. I actually do know a number of men who have come to me sort of sorting through their own pasts, thinking about - some of them are men who have, you know, been on that list of media men that was circulated who were alleged to have done something bad and have come to me to talk about it. I think some do want absolution. Some want to tell their side of the story. Some want to express their guilt. Some want to - many, many men, including some who've been accused of trespass and some who have just been thinking through their own stories and their own past have come to me sorting through their memories of women that they've dated or that they've worked with and approached sexually and say to me, I'm seeing all this in a new light. That's something I'm hearing from men a lot. And I...

MAYER: I imagine some of them are probably seeing it in their nightmares. I mean (laughter)...

TRAISTER: Some are. Some are. I've had men tell me they're having panic attacks.

MAYER: And many of them should. I - you know, I have to - I have to say that as someone who was in the workplace, you know, now for - God, I don't know - 40 years or something, it was so rampant. It was something that we all dealt with and there - and it was just - there's so many men who have so much to atone for if you go back in time. I mean, most of us just kind of had to, you know, cope some way or another. But it was - it was just kind of how things were.

GROSS: So can I just stop you there and say, Jane, how come you and the other women you're referring to didn't report it to HR or say something to the person you report to?

MAYER: You know, I was thinking about this, and I think the answer is kind of - this exaggerates it's a little bit, but it's a little bit like asking, you know, the slaves why they didn't complain about the masters. I mean, the power was on the other side, and it went all the way up through to the top of these companies. And you really had very little power as a young female working almost exclusively for men. And so there was kind of nobody to complain to, including the HR departments.

GROSS: My guests are Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Rebecca Traister, who writes for New York Magazine. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about this turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. I have two guests. Rebecca Traister writes about feminist issues for New York Magazine. She wrote a book about Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Also with us is New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. She co-wrote a 1994 book about the Clarence Thomas hearing and Anita Hill.

So some feminists, feminist journalists now and columnists, are asking should we be re-examining Juanita Broaddrick's claim that Bill Clinton raped her in her hotel room. She said she was supposed to meet him in his office when he was visiting Little Rock. This was when he was governor of Arkansas. He called and suggested that he meet her in her hotel lobby since he wasn't in his office, and once he got to the lobby, he called her room and said they should have their coffee in her hotel room because there were reporters in the lobby and it would be awkward. And she says once he got up to the hotel room, he raped her.

So, Rebecca Traister, you wrote a book about Hillary Clinton - Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign. You've continued to write about her and to be in touch with her. Do you think that Juanita Broaddrick's claim should be re-examined now and that Bill Clinton's behavior should be re-examined now?

TRAISTER: I do think that Bill Clinton's behavior should be re-examined, and I think that that involves going back and reacquainting ourselves with the story of Juanita Broaddrick. I think that looking at the Bill Clinton - the allegations made against Bill Clinton not only with regard to Juanita Broaddrick but also around the Lewinsky relationship is really important to this moment because I think that chronologically it was an important period for the feminist conversation around sexual harassment and power imbalances with regard to sexual power abuses.

So it happened right after the Anita Hill hearings when we had this new vocabulary and new lens through which to look at the way that sexual power abuses did material harm to women in the workplace. And then we had Bill Clinton in the White House. And during his term, he is accused by women of a variety of trespasses, and many feminists rose to his defense, some for reasons that made sense. In part, his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was consensual. She was an adult.

There was an anxiety I think then, too, about making out women to be sort of victims of male sexuality and not being protectionist feminists. There was a defense of his behavior, but it was also politically motivated. He was a Democrat in the White House, and he was on the side of feminist concerns. He was appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. He was a pro-choice president after 12 years of Republican presidents.

Feminists were invested in - to some degree in protecting him politically. In part, that's because feminists wind up dependent as long as men have a disproportionate share of the power in politics. We are dependent on them if they are on our side. But it wound up - the fact that many feminists did defend Bill Clinton in that moment and sort of skimmed over the Juanita Broaddrick claims meant that that conversation that had been kicked off by the Anita Hill hearings got derailed.

GROSS: Since you've written so much about Hillary Clinton, do you think that her - like, some people say, well, she must have enabled this in some way or she was complicit in some way. If we re-examined Bill Clinton's behavior, does that mean we have to re-examine Hillary Clinton's behavior?

TRAISTER: I think that this process is forcing all of us to re-examine all of our behaviors, all of those of us who worked in places where we knew sexual harassment was taking place and didn't say anything for all kinds of reasons that made sense. But did that then enable the harassers to go on and do more damage to other women? One thing that I think is really important when it comes to how we talk about Hillary Clinton and how we talk about wives in general is that we not make the women responsible for the men's - the harm done by men, which is a very...

MAYER: I mean, many of the family - many of the wives and the families in all of these cases are collateral damage, and they...

TRAISTER: Yes.

MAYER: Particularly, in the judgments that have been reached recently, most of these men have completely lost their ability to earn a living, and that is a very harsh judgment and very hard on their families too. You know, I think that another area that I - that is where there's sort of category confusion is, what should the punishment be for - should everybody be punished the same way, meaning to lose their job and to be shunned by the workplace? A number of women who were attached to these men are suffering from the men's behavior too.

GROSS: OK so this is something that you both brought up. If there is different degrees when we're talking about sexual assault and sexual harassment, how do we start to define those degrees and make the punishment fit the crime?

MAYER: Well, you know, I mean, one thing that I think is a good thing is that we're seeing a little bit more of a slowing down of the process and looking - having internal investigations. You've got the employers of some of the accused people saying they need to investigate what's going on. And I think a - you know, a careful internal investigation where everyone gives their side is probably better than trial by Internet.

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Jane Mayer, Rebecca Traister, thank you.

TRAISTER: Thank you.

MAYER: Great to be with you.

GROSS: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book is called "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Rebecca Traister writes about feminist issues for New York Magazine. Her latest book is "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation."

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with comic and actor Patton Oswalt and with the two stars of the Comedy Central series "The President Show," Anthony Atamanuik and Peter Grosz, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

[Editor's Note: After the broadcast of the panel discussion with Jane Mayer and Rebecca Traister, during which David Corn, the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones, was included in a list of journalists alleged to have committed acts of sexual harassment or assault, Mother Jones Editor in Chief Clara Jeffrey and CEO Monika Bauerlein contacted us to say that although women had raised concerns in the past about Corn’s language and uninvited touching, those allegations were investigated, addressed and resolved at the time.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.