When Anita Hill accused then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, the graphic Senate hearings riveted the country.
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Twenty-five years on, writer and producer Susannah Grant says few women under the age of 30 have ever heard of Hill, which is one of the reasons she felt compelled to revisit the story for the HBO film “Confirmation,” which premieres on Sunday.
“This has not been written into our cultural history in a way that anyone younger than 38 or so is aware of. I think it important that people know because everybody who takes a job now is told clearly of the rights and boundaries of responsible workplace behavior.
“Very rarely do civil rights get granted. They usually have to be demanded and fought for,” Grant said.
“Confirmation” – starring “Scandal” star Kerry Washington as law professor Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas, who denied the allegations and is now a Supreme Court justice – depicts Hill as a voice that changed history.
Thomas declined to talk with the filmmakers and declined to comment on the film.
“Her voice completely altered how we, as a nation, talk about sexual harassment in the workplace. … It took (sexual harassment) from something of an insiders’ legal conversation to a large national conversation,” Grant said.
Hill emerged from the 1991 hearings with her reputation in tatters. Yet the following year, the number of women in the U.S. Senate shot up from two to six and sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled.
Still, much remains to be done, activists say, in an era when 25 percent of women say they have experienced sexual harassment at work, yet 70 percent never report it, according to a 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey.
Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, hopes the HBO film will empower young women.
“Millennial women are pushing back against rape culture on college campuses and are now moving into the workplace. I hope it’s going to remind them why they can fight and win in a culture that is sexist and discriminatory,” O’Neill said.
Grant has only modest hopes of “Confirmation” spurring the kind of change triggered by Hill, who is now a professor at Brandeis University and has taken part in promotional events for the film.
Instead, she would be happy “if someone comes away from it and thinks, ‘Oh, you can actually just speak up. It will be uncomfortable but that’s an option.'”
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant)