NEW YORK — To Charlotte Bennett, the new book that arrived at her Manhattan apartment this week — Anita Hill’s “Believing” — was more than just a look at gender violence.
It was a dispatch from a fellow member of a very specific sisterhood — women who have come forward to describe misconduct they suffered at the hands of powerful men.
Bennett’s story of harassment by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped lead to his resignation after an investigation found he’d harassed at least 11 women. And 30 years ago this month, Hill testified before a skeptical Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.
“I can’t imagine what it was like doing that in 1991,” said Bennett, 26. “I’ve thought about that a lot.”
Hill’s history obviously predates the #MeToo movement, the broad social reckoning against sexual misconduct that reaches its four-year mark this week. But Bennett’s moment is very much a part of it, and she believes #MeToo is largely responsible for a fundamental change in the landscape since 1991, when Hill came forward.
“I’d like to think that now, we are believed,” Bennett said in an interview. “That the difference is, we are not convincing our audience that something happened and trying to persuade them that it impacted us. I would really like to think we’re in a place now where it’s not about believability — and that we don’t have to apologize.”
But for Bennett, a former health policy aide in the Cuomo administration, what emboldened her to come forward — and bolster the claims of an earlier accuser — was also the feeling that she was part of a community of survivors who had each other’s back.
“I was really scared to come forward,” Bennett said. “But something that reassured me even in that moment of fear was that there were women before me … (it wasn’t) Charlotte versus the governor, but a movement, moving forward. And I am one small event and one small piece of reckoning with sexual misconduct, in workplaces and elsewhere.”
There’s evidence Bennett is not alone in feeling a shift. Four years after actor Alyssa Milano sent her viral tweet asking those who’d been harassed or assaulted to share stories or just reply “Me too,” following the stunning revelations about mogul Harvey Weinstein, most Americans think the movement has inspired more people to speak out about misconduct, according to a new poll.
About half of Americans — 54% — say they personally are more likely to speak out if they’re a victim of sexual misconduct, according to the poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. And slightly more, 58%, say they would speak out if they witnessed it.
Sixty-two percent of women said they are more likely to speak out if they are a victim of sexual misconduct as a result of recent attention to the issue, compared to 44% of men. Women also are more likely than men to say they would speak out if they are a witness, 63% vs 53%.
Sonia Montoya, 65, of Albuquerque, used to take the sexist chatter in stride at the truck repair shop where she’s worked as the office manager — the only woman — for 17 years. But as news broke in 2016 about the crude way presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about women, she realized she’d had enough. She demanded respect, prompting changes from her colleagues that stuck as the #MeToo movement took hold.
“It used to be brutal, the way people talked (at work). It was raw,” said Montoya, a poll participant who describes herself as an independent voter and political moderate. “Ever since this movement and awareness has come out, the guys are a lot more respectful and they think twice before they say certain things.”
Justin Horton, a 20-year-old EMT in Colorado Springs who attends a local community college, said he saw attitudes start to change as the #MeToo movement exploded during his senior year of high school.
He thinks it’s now easier for men like him to treat women with respect, despite a culture that too often objectifies them. And he hopes people realize that men can be sexually harassed as well.
“I feel like it’s had a lasting impact,” he said. “I feel like people have been more self-aware.”
Close to half of Americans say the recent attention to sexual misconduct has had a positive impact on the country overall — roughly twice the number that say it’s been negative, 45% vs. 24%, the poll shows. As recently as January 2020, Americans were roughly split over the impact of the movement on the country.
Still, there are signs the impact has been unequal, with fewer Americans seeing positive change for women of color than for women in general. That dovetails with frequent criticism that the #MeToo movement has been less inclusive of women of color.
“We haven’t moved nearly enough” in that area, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke told The Associated Press in an interview last month.
The AP-NORC Poll also showed generational differences: More Americans under 30 said they’re more likely to speak out if they are a victim, compared with older adults, 63% vs. 51%. And 67% of adults under 30 said they were they are more likely to speak out if they witness sexual misconduct, compared with 56% of those older.
There is a price for speaking out. Bennett said Cuomo, despite having resigned, is still not taking true responsibility for his actions, and so her struggle goes on.
“He’s still willing to try and discredit us,” she said. “And I am at a point where I’m exhausted. This has been a horrible experience.”
Bennett has said the 63-year-old Cuomo, among other comments, asked if her experience with sexual assault in college had affected her sex life, asked about her sexual relationships, and said he was comfortable dating women in their 20s. Cuomo denies making sexual advances and says his questions were an attempt to be friendly and sympathetic to her background as a survivor. He’s denied other women’s allegations of inappropriate touching, including an aide who accused him of groping her breast.
How is Bennett doing, two months after the resignation? She replies haltingly: “I’m doing OK. Every day is hard. It’s sad. It takes a piece of you a little bit. But … I would make the same decision every single time. The reason I was in public service was to be a good citizen and give back and do the right thing and contribute. I didn’t see my role like this, but that’s what it turned into. And that’s OK. I’m proud of myself for coming forward, and I will get through it.”
She muses about where the country might be in three more decades.
“I think reflecting on Anita Hill’s experience is a great way to understand how long 30 years is,” she said.
“So what do I feel like the next big change will be? I think it’s just not apologizing for being inconvenient. I could sit here and apologize. But I want to get to a place … where we’re not apologizing, where it’s our job to come forward if we have the means and ability to do so.”
And the #MeToo movement, she said, should be not only a community, not only “a soft landing place” for women who come forward.
“It should it be where leaders come from,” Bennett said. “We know how institutions act. We know the underbelly of these institutions better than anyone. We have a lot of solutions to fix it and we should be at the table.
“It should be OUR table.”