On Oct. 11, 1991, a woman named Anita Hill went before an all-male Senate committee. Her vivid testimony and the discomfiting questions it raised remain with us still.
Even those who doubted Hill's allegation that she had been sexually harassed by her former boss, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, were drawn into discussion and self-examination.
Has this happened to me? Have I done this to someone else?
"A lot of women had felt so isolated and perhaps couldn't even define sexual harassment," said Helen Neuborne, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "The hearings made an enormous difference, even though they were horrible."
Maybe it was precisely because the hearings made so many people uncomfortable that the experience has taken root.
The number of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has since increased by about 50 percent.
Politically, the landscape has been transformed. A record 11 women have won primaries for the U.S. Senate. On the House side, 107 women will be on the ballot Nov. 3, a 54 percent increase over 1990. Many say their candidacies were directly motivated by Hill's experience.
A spate of practical handbooks has been published, videotapes produced and support groups founded for victims of sexual harassment.
"Soon after the hearing women were calling, saying, "I think this is happening to me,'
" said Jean Scherwenka, who helps run a working women's hot line in Milwaukee. "Before they hadn't been aware of the laws. They knew something was wrong, but didn't know what."
"What these very, very public hearings did was catapult an issue that had long been around out of the closet," said Nancy Kreiter of Women Employed in Chicago. "In bringing it out, it had to be examined."
Whether or not Hill's story was true in some ways didn't matter, though a recent poll indicates nearly twice as many people believe her today as did a year ago.
The point was that the cat was out of the bag.
The headlines were as prominent as those about Mike Tyson's rape trial this year and William Kennedy Smith's last year.
Perhaps most encouraging, volunteers say, were the number of calls from employers interested in developing grievance policies and sensitivity training.