October marks 30 years since you testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Thomas hearings. Since then, there have been a lot of changes. How do you measure progress on issues of gender violence at this inflection point?
There has been some progress in terms of better representation on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and throughout the Senate, so that when these kinds of issues come up in the political forum there is a more diverse body of knowledge that goes into how they should be considered. We can also measure progress in terms of changes from the #MeToo revelations and the acknowledgement that sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem eating away at our institutions. And we can look at the fact that there are [legal] cases being heard now — even though there have been accusations for decades — and I point specifically to the R. Kelly case. And the Epstein case. The Weinstein case.Those are big moments, transformational moments.
But even with the awareness, and even if there has been change, the numbers are still exorbitantly high; the problems persist. And then, once again, we had the Senate Judiciary hearing [for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh] with Christine Blasey Ford, showing that there was much that had not changed with the process.
Did you expect a different outcome, or different level of engagement with the issue?
I was hopeful. Though I didn’t have any indication that it would change to a clear and independent process. In fact, the president asked, or demanded, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley agreed, that there would be a limited investigation to the two principal parties. Which turned it into this he-said-she-said moment. That could have been avoided. If you bring in all of the witnesses and build context to the events that are being claimed, then you can avoid pitting one person against the other. That’s the real tragedy. And it’s not just a tragedy for Christine Blasey Ford, which it is. It is a tragedy because now, we’ve got two instances where the process doesn’t work. We have to have rules in place, and acknowledge the reality of the problem, and the fact that judges could be abusers.
We have an example from Letitia James in the [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo case, where, even though she was the same party as Cuomo, she called for an independent investigation. I read the report. It was very clear what she did, who she talked to — people on both sides of the issue — how she weighed the evidence, what her conclusion was, and then there was an outcome. And ultimately a sense of accountability. And after that happened, rather than this long public discussion about who was right or who was wrong or whether this was all political, the conversation tamped down to the facts. That’s what we want. And that’s where we want our government to lead us. That’s hard work. And it takes time. But I think we’ve got to demand that our leadership make those commitments to get started on it. And accountability has to come from the top.
Joe Biden was head of the Senate Judiciary Committee that grilled you back in ’91 – and he has since apologized to you for the treatment of you at the time. You’ve said that his apology ought also to acknowledge the harm done more broadly. What should that apology — and real amends — look like?
First of all, there should just be an acknowledgement that what the committee did was a reflection of our how our government values the significance of the experience of sexual harassment or assault. And that really leaves a lot of victims and survivors and their families with the sense that the government really doesn’t care. So public trust in our system, in our ability or our willingness to do something about this problem, has been completely diminished. I think that’s one of the things that a leader of a country can correct. But it has to be directly, and it has to be more than just saying that you are committed to change.
Because even as enormous as [the issue] is, some people refuse to see it. And that’s why we need our leader, arguably the most powerful person in the world, to acknowledge it. Whether it’s Joe Biden as president or whoever is the next president. We need our leaders and our institutions to acknowledge it. Invest in it. Call and engage victims and survivors and their families in the solutions. Do the work. Like, to me, one easy thing is the Violence Against Women Act. In 2000, it was basically gutted in terms of the role that the federal government plays in protecting women. It needs to be restored. It needs to be reaffirmed. It’s been languishing in committee. And again, what we have is a sense that our government doesn’t care.
You’ve said that you never set out to be a crusader— you were a law professor when called to testify. And even after realizing you were going to need to be a voice to help educate people about sexual harassment, you thought you’d give it two yearsand then go back to teaching contract law. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
[Laughs.] It sounds silly, doesn’t it? To think that I was naive enough to think that two years would do something. You know, I’m not the kind of leader that people might envision in terms of rallying people to march. But I made a commitment to do what I can. And I had mentors. One was Lillian Lewis, the wife of Congressman [John] Lewis, who told me about her own activism in Atlanta and how important it was for there to be an African American woman — and a woman with my skills as a lawyer and as a teacher — in this issue of sexual harassment at the time, to have that voice as one of the voices heard.
And then there were thousands of letters. Letters that helped me grow my ideas about what I needed to be talking about. That, yes, I needed to talk about sexual harassment, but the issue was bigger than sexual harassment. The issue, really, covers a whole spectrum of behaviors that are impacting the lives of so many people. And doing harm, reputational and economic harm, to our nation.
Did any of those letters, those stories stick with you particularly?
One of the most compelling was a man who described himself as an incest survivor who connected his experience of telling his parents that he was being abused and their disbelief of him with what he thought when he watched the Senate Judiciary Committee. There was a woman in Kansas City in a line for a book signing, and she came up to me, and she said, “I left my husband because of you.” I said, “What?” She said, “I was in an abusive marriage. And I knew I needed to get out. And when I watched your testimony, I knew then that I was going to do it.”
I was speaking in front of a group of high school students at a [vocational] tech school in California. This was about 10 years ago. And this high school student came up to the mike and asked me, “How does it feel to know that you’ve changed the world?” I mean, I don’t even know that I thought I had changed the world. But I also knew that there were people who were counting on me to do it. He was counting on me. There’s a whole generation of people out there who are still wanting the world to be changed.
So those are my stories of inspiration. They and so many others stay with me because they’re the human experience of this. The woman in Kansas City successfully got out of her abuse. But so many people don’t.
How have you changed since you were thrust into the spotlight 30 years ago?
I’ve always felt that I’m a private person; authentically, that’s who I am. But what I have learned is that there are moments where it’s very important for me to be a public person. Having the right people around helps sustain you. I had a wonderful family that supported me. I had colleagues who supported me. And I don’t take any of those things for granted. But even with all of that, I had to grow. I left law school teaching, not because I had given up on the law but because I knew that in order to be effective, I needed to expand my knowledge base. Which is why I teach in a policy school right now. I knew I had to go and I had to change. And I knew it meant relocating to a different state and a different school, where I felt that I could be heard and there would be no attempts to silence me.
In many ways, I think our journey, as a country, as a society, really tracks my own journey in the sense that we, as a society, have to grow. We have to raise our voices in places that we never thought we would be before, which is what I’m doing.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.