What’s Changed From Anita Hill to Christine Blasey Ford

What’s Changed From Anita Hill to Christine Blasey Ford

Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers-Camden political scientist and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, researches why women in politics matter

Rutgers Today, Rutgers News - Kelly DIttmar on  What’s Changed From Anita Hill to Christine Blasey Ford
Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, says women's representation in politics has made a difference.
Photo: Bill Cardoni

"The question now is will we have the energy and political capital to address sexual harassment in substantive ways, and are we willing to grapple with the nuances and challenges that come with accountability and changing the culture? Because those are the harder things.”
 
– Kelly Dittmar

Before the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements made headlines and brought issues of women's rights back to the forefront, Rutgers scholars had been working for decades as ardent advocates through their research, teaching and outreach. Over the next several weeks, Rutgers Today will be highlighting many of the women whose work is making a noticeable impact. 

“First, you have to define the problem.” Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, is talking about sexual harassment as it was understood – or, perhaps better put, not understood – in 1991, when Anita Hill accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her.

Dittmar, who is also a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, notes that “in 1991, we were just trying to define that there was such a thing.” Today, there’s a much broader understanding of what harassment is (and the fact that it exists), and a greater chance that a woman accuser will be believed, thanks not just to movements like #MeToo and Time’sUp, but also to the increasing number of women in positions of political power.

That happens to be Dittmar’s area of expertise. She wrote the newly released A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) with two CAWP colleagues, Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll. The book offers insights from 83 female members of Congress on what it means to be a woman in politics and illuminates the ways in which women’s representation has made a difference – to the country and to women. 

It has certainly made a difference in matters like sexual harassment. In the book, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York says that “it is easier for a female member to imagine what it’s like to be victimized, to be disbelieved, disregarded, and retaliated against . . . something that they can imagine happening easier than many of our male colleagues who can’t imagine ever being victimized or disbelieved or disregarded because they’ve never experienced that.”

That empathy with the experiences of other women, Dittmar believes, is only one of the many benefits of bringing more women to the table. She notes that congresswomen typically inject overlooked and underaddressed issues – like the challenges of finding affordable child care – into the political agenda. They also bring, as research has shown, what Dittmar calls a “results-oriented” approach to governing, as opposed to an approach driven by a desire for power, that perhaps makes women more willing than men to seek bipartisan solutions. And they bring more women into the political process and inspire the next generation of female leaders.

At a time when another Supreme Court candidate faces accusations of sexual transgressions, Dittmar’s focus on women in politics offers a unique insight into the workings of sexual harassment. “I often think about it as being, in large part, about power differentials,” she says. Consider, for example, that women in high-level political positions – chiefs of staff, legislative directors, and so on – are less likely to experience sexual harassment because they often wield the greater power in a relationship. A male lobbyist, for instance, isn’t likely to harass a female chief of staff because she controls access to the legislator he’s hoping to influence. 

That hasn’t been the case in political arenas in which power is largely wielded by men, such as state legislatures. In 2017, at least partially in response to #MeToo, hundreds of women working in state legislatures – lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, and activists – came out with accusations of sexual harassment against their male colleagues and bosses. While roughly half of all state legislatures have yet to respond to the allegations, the encouraging news – which may reflect women’s growing political clout – is that some 30 state lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct have either resigned or been defeated in recent elections, and roughly the same number have faced other repercussions. The fact that so many women were willing to speak out about harassment, says Dittmar, is a sign that the political environment is changing.

“The way harassment sustains itself,” she notes, “is by assuming that those who are victimized don’t have the power to speak out and don’t have credibility because of their positions.” As women continue to come forward with their stories, they help create an environment “in which more women will feel like the costs of doing so aren’t necessarily greater than the benefits.”

Recalibrating the power differential will certainly go a long way toward creating lasting change. “The question now,” says Dittmar, “is will we have the energy and political capital to address sexual harassment in substantive ways, and are we willing to grapple with the nuances and challenges that come with accountability and changing the culture? Because those are the harder things.”


Read the Rutgers Magazine #WeToo story profiling Rutgers scholars here.