Will the Reaction to Hermain Cain Show We've Made Progress Since Anita Hill?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 31 2011 3:21 PM

Will the Reaction to Hermain Cain Show We've Made Progress Since Anita Hill?

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Anita Hill arrives for the The White House Projects 2006 EPIC Awards.

Photo by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Last night, shortly after the news of sexual harassment claims againt GOP presidential hopeful Hermain Cain broke, journalist Zerlina Maxwell tweeted, "We will be able to see how far we've come since 1991 by how the media treats these women." She's referring, of course, to the allegations Anita Hill made against current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The 20th anniversary of the Thomas hearings has just passed, and as Slate's David Weigel points out, the Cain campaign is already dog whistling references to those proceedings, with the statement, "Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before–a prominent Conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics." [emphasis Weigel's]

There's already evidence that we have evolved somewhat since the Hill/Thomas frenzy.The women who accused Hermain Cain of sexual harassment back in the '90s when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association say his behavior toward them was sexually suggestive and it made them uncomfortable, and some conservative women are already sympathizing with these women. The president of Concerned Women for America, Penny Nance, told Politico, "I think Herman Cain needs to directly answer the question." Nance even admits to Politico that she experienced sexual harassment earlier in her career:

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"I resigned from a trade association for the exact same reason and with no financial settlement. I simply found another job. ...Therefore, I know in a very personal way that sexual harassment exists and that it's demeaning and painful. It should never be tolerated in the workforce and certainly not the White House."

Though Nance also adds that she's never observed Cain behaving in an innappropriate manner, this reaction is light years ahead of the way conservative women reacted publicly to Anita Hill's claims. Back then, conservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly called Hill a "phony," adding:

"Anita Hill whined about being the victim 10 years ago of a 'hostile environment' created by words allegedly spoken by a man. How could anybody take her seriously? The very nature of being a lawyer is to thrive in a hostile environment. A lawyer complaining about this is as ridiculous as a doctor complaining about working in a 'bloody environment.'"

It's unclear whether these allegations will hurt Cain's poll numbers overall. He was unpopular with women before this scandal broke, which means they weren't his base in the first place. As others have pointed out, Bill Clinton overcame even worse PR when it came to women and sexual harassment. Though there are many who are already dismissing the claims these women are making as a liberal media plot, it's heartening that that view isn't the dominant one so far.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.