I was 12 years old when Anita Hill, sitting erect in an aqua blue suit, told a Senate committee in vivid detail about how Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Network TV preempted regularly scheduled programming to give it wall-to-wall coverage. I don’t remember exactly what the talking heads on TV—or in our Bronx apartment—said, but the message was clear: Anita Hill was a liar who was wrong to attack an Ivy League, Republican Black man with such potential. Despite being a loyal Democrat, my grandfather made jokes in Spanish about Hill. I remember my mother glaring at him and keeping silent except to once declare: “That woman is brave. I wish I was as brave as her.”
I was too young to understand what sexual harassment was and thought that Hill must be lying because all the older men around me said so. In Latino cultures, this type of behavior is not just tolerated, it’s excused as a form of manhood. How many times have I heard one of my aunts say, “eso son los hombres,” another version of “boys will be boys”?
Two years after the Hill hearing, I saw my mother crying alone in her room. She was a state clerk in a criminal court who had taken over a half a dozen civil service exams, and she wanted so much to be a supervisor. But a senior court employee kept making unwanted sexual advances. After she rejected him, someone put a dead flower on her desk and told her to keep “her damn mouth shut.”
My mom was single and raising me on one salary in The Bronx. Her formal complaints at work were ignored, and the retaliation against her was severe. My mother was fierce, beautiful, smart and talented, but like so many women, she could not change the power dynamics of her office. So she wiped her tears away, threw out the dead flower on her desk and she went back to work.
Anita Hill’s experience is about to repeat itself on Thursday (September 27), but this time the Supreme Court nominee is Brett Kavanaugh. One of his accusers is Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto University research psychologist and biostatistician who says that Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party when they were teenagers in Maryland. On Sunday (September 23), The New Yorker reported on a second accuser, a Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s named Deborah Ramirez. Ramirez claims that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a dorm room party when they were both freshman.
Clarence Thomas was confirmed despite Hill’s testimony, and I suspect Kavanaugh will be as well. Yet, Hill’s brave decision to recount what happened to her forced the United States to recognize and begin to address sexual harassment. Because of her experience, workplaces began establishing sexual harassment policies and requiring trainings.
Throughout my career as a labor and community organizer, I’ve attended many of these trainings. There has been some progress in the form of more women speaking out. But survivors are still ostracized, degraded and sternly told that we are making a big deal out of nothing. Even in the most progressive environments, women are supposed to go along to get along. If an action is taken, there is usually a confidential settlement. Then all is supposed to be right in the world again.
Like my mother, I was a single mom when I was sexually harassed. But unlike her, I was not brave. I never made a complaint because I didn’t have the strength to name the powerful White man who abused his power over me. I, like so many, began to believe that it was my fault: I should have known not to have an extra drink at the restaurant. It was my fault that I didn’t predict how this man could affect my professional life. It was my fault for thinking that what was happening to me was OK.
When it was all over, it was me who had to protect my harasser’s reputation. He was a powerful White man. I, a young Puerto Rican mother, had too much to lose.
The people who didn’t believe Hill, and those who don’t want to believe Ford keep asking why they didn’t instantly come forward. But we all know why: It’s the fear, the retaliation and the knowledge that many people will say you are lying. Hill suffered. Ford has received death threats and gone into hiding. These are the reasons why many of us don’t come forward.
I hope that maybe one day I will be brave like Hill, Ford and my mom. I’ve gone on to achieve so much professionally and personally—my marriage, my children, my career and my graduate degree. But even after years of therapy, I am not ready. And that is OK. It is my choice to deal with trauma in my own way.
When Ford testifies on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, my mother and I will be watching her. We will be saying, “That woman is brave,” as will millions of others of all races and creeds. We will be right there hoping that Kavanaugh’s accusers are treated fairly and that justice will be done, even for those of us who are not ready to risk it all to speak out.
Camille rivera is the national political and legislative director at New York City’s Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Prior to joining the RWDSU she was the national deputy political director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) during the 2016 presidential campaign, managing a $4 million dollar campaign to get out the Latinx vote in swing states including Colorado, Florida and Nevada. She has also worked as a deputy comissioner for New York City Mayor Bill Deblasio and served as executive director of United NY, a community organization that mobilized fast-food workers to advocate for a $15 minimum wage.
*Post has been updated to reflect the correct name of Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser, Deborah Ramirez.