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Was it #MeToo that convicted Bill Cosby? How public perception has evolved when it comes to sexual assault

The impact of #MeToo in the case against Cosby can't be quantified, though some say this year's result is inarguably about timing and context. And while plenty still believe in Cosby's innocence, the latest reckoning represents a sure shift.

Protesters cheer and hold signs as Bill Cosby leaves the courtroom after being found guilty of sexual assault Thursday, April 26, 2018, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa.
Protesters cheer and hold signs as Bill Cosby leaves the courtroom after being found guilty of sexual assault Thursday, April 26, 2018, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Ileana Rodriguez loved Bill Cosby's namesake show. The longtime comedian was a role model for her growing up — and his TV family made her think, "Maybe my family can be like that."

But make no mistake.

"He should have been locked up," Rodriguez, 54, of Kensington, said, "a long time ago."

A Montgomery County jury Thursday convicted Cosby, 80, of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. The decision, which came after the first trial ended in a mistrial, is being hailed as the first celebrity conviction of the #MeToo era.

The impact of #MeToo in the case against Cosby can't be quantified, though some say this year's result is inarguably about timing and context. And while plenty still believe in Cosby's innocence, the latest reckoning represents a sure shift:

Consider when Constand's claims were made public in a 2005 news release: Cosby continued his life as entertainer, appearing in short films, working as a writer and making dozens of public appearances. As recently as 2014, Philadelphia public officials were praising Cosby, even after 13 women had come forward.

Before Cosby, there was Clinton and Clarence, both emerging unscathed after public accusations of sexual misconduct. Even Harvey Weinstein continued his career while Hollywood joked about his alleged behavior, before news reports full of women's accusations began to be taken seriously.

"Since the #MeToo movement, women have gained credibility," activist Bird Milliken said outside the courthouse Wednesday. "Unfortunately, that's what it took."

Here's a look back at how public perception has evolved when it comes to sexual assault.

‘I think she did it for the publicity’

After Brandeis Law Professor Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, a judge awaiting Senate confirmation to become a Supreme Court justice, the nation divided into two camps: those who believed her, and those who believed his denials. In October 1991 as Hill prepared to testify about how Thomas made unwanted sexual advances and talked to her about sex and pornography, a USA Today survey found "that almost twice as many people believed Thomas as believed Hill."

A former columnist found three women discussing the allegations in a Glenside Dunkin' Donuts and recounted their conversation in the pages of the Inquirer in 1991:

"Why did it take so long to come out. I think she did it for the publicity."
"She was afraid of losing her job? I don't believe it. Not if a girl's qualified. "
"Some people don't care how they get fame. She probably thinks, now's my chance to get my name in lights."

As the Senate hearings to confirm Thomas continued, Maria Farnese, then 37 and living in South Philadelphia, told an Inquirer reporter: "I feel incredibly embarrassed. To put a man on trial like this … I think we've reached an all-time low in American history." Another woman called into C-SPAN at the time to say: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I think she's lying. "

There were some men in Philadelphia at the time who reflected on their own behavior during the hearings. Bruce Padgett, a firefighter on South Street, said Hill's testimony would change the way he spoke to women.

"Would you go into a restaurant now and say, 'Hey, baby, how you feeling?' " he said. "No way."

Thomas was confirmed on a 52-48 vote, one of the narrowest-ever margins to confirm a Supreme Court justice. He is 69 and remains a sitting justice on the Supreme Court.

His ‘position is untenable’

In early 1992, then Sen. Brock Adams (D., Wash.) announced he wouldn't seek reelection after the Seattle Times published a three-year investigation saying he "sexually harassed and physically molested female employees and associates over the past two decades."

Despite the urging of some colleagues, Adams did not resign, instead serving another nine months. Even still, much of the conversation in the following days focused almost entirely on the political implications.

"It's devastating," Washington state Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Marchioro told the LA Times. "It was bad before, but now I think Brock's position is untenable. This is a very, very serious hit on a person who was not in that strong a position anyway."

Adams died in 2004 at age 77 due to complications from Parkinson's disease.

‘They didn’t believe me’

Multiple women accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, including Paula Jones, who sued Clinton for sexual harassment.

"No one would hear us," Jones recently told the New York Times. "They made fun of me. They didn't believe me. They said I was making it up."

Kathleen Willey, a former White House aide, said Clinton sexually assaulted her during his first term as president. She was told she had nothing but a "romantic fascination" with the president. In an op-ed in the New York Times in 1998, feminist Gloria Steinem said of Willey: "Even if the allegations are true, the president is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life."

And it's impossible to talk about public perception as it relates to Clinton without mentioning the obvious: the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Sharon Smalls, then of Cherry Hill,  wrote in a letter to the Daily News: "Nearly every woman I've talked to does not believe anything happened or if it did, it was the fault of Monica Lewinsky." In a 1998 NYT op-ed, writer Katie Roiphe wrote Lewinsky and Clinton abused their power equally, as the young intern employed the "time-honored female tradition to use sexual power as a way to try to improve one's position in the world." Dozens more piled on. Ann McDaniel, the then-Washington bureau chief of Newsweek magazine, said on CNN it was unclear whether Lewinsky's alleged affair with Clinton was "perhaps a small flirtation … that she's exaggerated into something else."

‘I don’t know anybody who’s a quicker study’

In the early '90s, then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R., Ore.) was nearly expelled from the Senate after allegations surfaced in a 1992 Washington Post story that he'd sexually harassed and assaulted women who were former staffers or lobbyists.

Packwood's "skirt problem," as it was called at the time, was apparently well-known in Washington political circles. The freelance reporter who broke the story wrote that at least 40 women had been subjected to unwanted advances by Packwood.

However, in the wake of serious sexual assault claims against Packwood, some of his Senate colleagues still took opportunities to praise him. In September 1995, Mark Hatfield, Oregon's senior senator at the time, said Packwood made a mark that "cannot be expunged," according to archives of the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Ore. Then-Majority Leader Bob Dole (R., Kansas) said at the time: "I don't know anybody who's a quicker study."

Not all of Packwood's colleagues backed him, though. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ken.), who was then the chairman of the Ethics Committee that investigated Packwood, excoriated the senator, saying: "There were not merely stolen kisses. This was a habitual pattern of aggressive, blatant sexual advances."

McConnell is currently the majority leader of the Senate. Packwood resigned in 1995 and went on to found a lobbying firm.

An ‘open secret’

The accusations that brought down Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein — accusations that kicked off the #MeToo movement last year — were not news to plenty of people in Hollywood who took part in what some called the "open secret."

In a 2012 episode of the NBC Show 30 Rock, the comedy starring Tina Fey, the character Jenna says: "Look, I get it. I know how former lovers can have a hold of you long after they're gone. In some ways, I'm still pinned under a passed-out Harvey Weinstein and it's Thanksgiving."

The same character joked: "I turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions. Out of five."

Similarly, comedian Seth MacFarlane made a Weinstein-related joke at the 2013 Oscar nominations, saying after reading a list of supporting-actress nominees: "Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein."

Staff writers Jason Nark, Michaelle Bond, and Tommy Rowan contributed to this article.