How a negative experience can create a positive change

Women have come a long way thanks to those who had the courage to step forward

As I’ve written in past columns, I find myself naïve about some of the goings-on in the world today—particularly as it relates to breaking the law.

In my editor’s letter last November, I talked about three incidents I had recently encountered that I found shocking: my 16-year-old niece being denied overtime pay at a large fast-food chain; a disabled lawyer who was too ashamed to sue her hair salon for not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act because she didn’t want to be labeled a “bad disabled person”; and allegations of appalling sexual harassment that had taken place at the Tribune Co.

I remember thinking after writing that column, “Will we ever progress?” And, since then, I notice and sometimes seek out stories that prove we are. On my drive to work this morning, I heard one of those stories.

The day I am writing this column marks the 20-year anniversary of the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court Justice. At those hearings, law professor Anita Hill testified that Thomas sexually harassed her while she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Thomas denied the claims, was eventually confirmed and the country soon forgot about the accusations. But the story doesn’t end there.

In her NPR report, “Thomas Confirmation Hearings Had Ripple Effect,” Nina Totenberg noted that before the hearings, women didn’t talk about their harassment experiences. But since then, women have made a lot of progress, not only in taking a stand against this type of treatment, but also breaking through the glass ceiling and holding more senior-level, political positions.

In the six years following the hearings, the number of sexual harassment complaints made to the EEOC tripled. Also, in 1991 when the hearings took place, the country had only two female senators. But after the hearings, almost a dozen women secured party nominations, and five were elected.

It’s interesting to note that such a negative experience for one woman had such a positive effect on so many others. At InsideCounsel, we’re working to do our part to keep the positive momentum for women in the legal profession. Last month, we launched our new Transformative Leadership microsite ( On it, you’ll find profile stories and videos of women who have strived to be successful in law, as well as help other women make progress.

Women have come a long way in a short time thanks to those who had the courage to step forward and pave the way for others to follow.


Cathleen Flahardy

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