Editor’s Note: Eleanor McManus is co-founder of the strategic communications and crisis management firm Trident DMG. She is co-founder of Press Forward, an independent initiative whose mission is to change culture in newsrooms. She was formerly a senior producer for CNN. Follow her @eleanorsmcmanus. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Looking back, Anita Hill was the original silence breaker. In her testimony to Congress 27 years ago, she noted “it would have been more comfortable to remain silent” than to come forward with her story about sexual harassment in the workplace involving then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who denied her allegations.
As she said then, “I felt that I had to tell the truth.” But at the end of the day, she paid the price, and she lost.
Professor Hill endured hours of testimony by US senators who doubted her and a nation that discounted her. She was vilified by men and women, Republicans and Democrats. Officials at the university where she taught at the time tried to revoke her tenure. And when it was done, Clarence Thomas was still confirmed to the US Supreme Court.
It was a historical moment that showed women around the world the consequences of speaking out. Today, amidst the ascendancy of #MeToo movement, Christine Blasey Ford has come forward with allegations of attempted sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Whether it was Anita Hill almost 30 years ago, or Christine Blasey Ford today, we must recognize the cost women pay when they come forward.
Last year I shared my own story about a well-known man in a position of power who acted inappropriately with me during a job interview, which ultimately altered the direction of my career. I decided to speak out many years later because I saw that my silence meant he continued this behavior for many years with other women.
After I spoke out, many more women shared similar experiences about this man. Our shared experience led to forming Press Forward, an organization whose goal is to end to end harassment, elevate women and create civil and respectful work environments for women to do their best work in journalism.
Since then, I’ve spoken with dozens of women – from interns and waitresses to C-suite executives – who have told me their own stories of assault and harassment. Some have been able to move on, others remain deeply traumatized. Many have kept their experiences close and told few, if any, confidants about them.
The last two years have been a reckoning regarding the breadth and depth of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. But speaking out doesn’t come without personal risk. Every time someone speaks out about being victimized, it comes at a cost.
Many brave women have told their stories publicly, but so many others are still hesitant to come forward. They fear professional retribution, or their economic circumstances require them to accept settlements at the cost of absolute silence.
Many women have chosen not to speak out because they risk retaliation and backlash, both professionally and personally. Others chose secrecy out of shame. And many fear others won’t believe them. Reliving a traumatic event is hard and painful. Being disbelieved, disregarded, or retaliated against is hard and painful – especially if the women have partners and young children.
Back then, one of the Senators questioning Hill asked her whether she ever considered making a complaint at the time, and if so, “how could you allow this kind of reprehensible conduct to go on right in the headquarters without doing something about it?” Partisans further challenged Professor Hill’s credibility by arguing that a true victim would have spoken up sooner.
The same thing is happening today, and it’s tragic. Today people are asking why it took Dr. Ford 30 years to come forward, as well as questioning the validity of her claims. Both Professor Hill and Dr. Ford took an extraordinary step to speak out, knowing the backlash they would have to face.
And yet, despite what Anita Hill went through almost three decades ago, Christine Blasey Ford opted not to stay silent, in spite of her initial desire to remain anonymous.
Kavanaugh has denied the allegations in Professor Ford’s story and a hearing is scheduled for Monday. The questions remain: Having come forward, will Ford have to endure the vitriol that Anita Hill did? Will she find, in this age of #MeToo, support for her telling her story? Or will she too be vilified? Will people believe her or will it cost her all credibility?
You may not believe Ford’s account, but do not discredit her story because she did not come forward sooner – and publicly. Assault is traumatic. It is traumatic when it happens; it is traumatic 30 years after it happens.
If and when Ford testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee, any dignified, empathic soul who believes her story will understand that she is exposing her very being to the world. She will be reliving a trauma (that she revealed to a therapist many years ago) to the country and the 24-hour news cycle.
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Put yourself in her position – its scrutiny, its vulnerability. Would you open up your most harbored and private pain to a panel of unfamiliar powerful faces and an international television audience? Would you subject yourself to the photographers, the endless calls from journalists, reporters showing up on your doorstep, and the percussive questioning that is certain to come?
Professor Ford’s coming forward should only be seen as brave. It comes at the cost of being victimized all over again – but this time with a nation watching her every word and move, and then peeling it apart over and over again.
I hope Professor Ford, if she appears next week, is welcomed – not with the hostility, disbelief and castigation Professor Hill endured, but with a measured sense of understanding for an incredibly courageous woman.