Friday, November 17 , 2017, 8:59 pm | Fair 60º

 
 
 
 

Jamie Stiehm: Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood Story as Old as Washington, the Old South

Hollywood was shocked (shocked!) at the story pyramid revealing Harvey Weinstein’s violent passes at younger women.

(Why wait 20 years, superstars Angelina, Gwyneth and boyfriend Brad?)

Hear the echoes of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas and, telescoping time, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Did the champion of liberty coerce his subjugated slave mistress? You tell me. But there’s a twist to that tale.

The free-fall from movie pharaoh to industry pariah brought a breeze of vindication. Weinstein’s life crumbled in such cinematic style that a plot point was born: a flood named #MeToo. The hashtag sprang up for legions of women who vividly reported sexual assault and harassment. They voiced their experiences online, breaking silences on social media.

This is not new, and white Hollywood stars are far from the only victims.

Speaking out is freeing. The volume from Everywoman showed sexual harassment happens all the time. Hollywood came clean on its dirty open secret, just how sordid Weinstein was with women.

Social movements cannot live on ether alone. Gathering force, women can hew new lines for their safety.

Since President Donald Trump has bragged about sexual assault, women should plan to protect each other in the workplace — and that includes the White House. The energy need not stop there; it can seize on other outrages in the age of Trump.

Back in 1991, Hill’s sworn testimony was not believed by 52 senators, 26 Octobers ago. The Senate hearings riveted the nation. Hill’s specific allegations of Thomas’ sexual harassment when he was her boss were so graphic and embarrassing that Thomas fled the room — he couldn’t take the heat.

Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.; and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., acted like witches. Thunder, lightning and rain, I called them from my San Francisco fog.

A U.S. Supreme Court seat was at stake. There were two women senators. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W. Va., stood and declared Hill told the truth. The vote was a sea of ties: 52 to 48 to confirm arch-conservative Thomas.

Had the drama gone the other way, I’m sure society would be in a different place. The vote sent a chilling message to a woman’s word against a powerful man.

In Jefferson’s Virginia, enslaved women were at the mercy of their master. Their bodies were legally his property. That was the way of the plantation world. “Planters” had slave mistresses all the time. Everybody knew, few talked. That’s how slavery grew so fast, by natural increase.

Women and girl slaves were always in the workplace — morning, noon and night. A master’s move to claim them was inescapable. And they had no way to voice their victimization. They couldn’t read, write or tweet. They are lost to history, mostly, save one.

Hemings’ life has come to light since 1999. There are shades of gray in the Hemings-Jefferson bond of 38 years. Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died young, leaving him devastated with two daughters. He took Sally to France, where he was the U.S. ambassador, to take care of the girls.

And there the thing began. Sally was in her teens, Jefferson in his 40s. As the French say, droit de seigneur. The master’s right. Jefferson historians took forever and a day to handle the bombshell truth.

Here goes: Sally and Martha were half-sisters. They had the same white father, whose slave concubine was Sally’s mother. You see, Sally was Martha’s slave, her own flesh and blood.

Hemings had a rare choice: Stay a free woman in Paris or return to Virginia a slave. Jefferson pleaded that she’d have a good life in the great house, Monticello. He promised to free their children at 21. (He did.)

Hemings had four children by Jefferson. DNA results told us so. One strikingly resembled his father, visitors noted. Madison Hemings was so named because Dolley Madison pressed a pregnant Sally to name a son after her husband, James.

Madison, a carpenter, wrote a memoir of Monticello and his “stately” father in an Ohio newspaper. His brother, Eston, played the violin, like his father, and went west to Wisconsin. Some light-skinned Hemings-Jefferson descendants crossed the color line.

Let’s keep working to change the tragic chorus: It happens all the time.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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