(CNN) — Barbara Bowman never thought this day would come.
The artist says that when she spoke out three weeks ago, in a Washington Post opinion article, she hoped to give voice to other women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by legendary comedian Bill Cosby. She says she wanted them to know they were not alone.
Since then, at least 16 others have gone public with accusations. Many of them offered similar stories about being drugged and raped, and said they were reluctant to talk earlier because they feared for their careers, their families or their own safety.
Three of Cosby’s accusers, including Bowman, told CNN on Tuesday of having struggled and gained strength in solidarity.
“One of my main goals was to reach out to these women who didn’t have the courage yet,” said Bowman. “Seeing it in action is really intense.”
While Cosby has not commented on the allegations, his camp has repeatedly and vigorously denied them.
In a recent statement, Cosby’s lawyer Martin D. Singer said it defies common sense that “so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years.”
Victoria Valentino was a Playboy bunny when, she claims, Cosby drugged and raped her in the late 1960s. She called such denials “absolutely ridiculous,” adding, “he’s got a very good spin doctor.”
Asked why it took her and others so long to come forward, Valentino said that “over the years, women didn’t have a voice.”
“Rape victims, sexual assault victims were victimized by the system,” she told CNN’s ‘New Day.'”… We didn’t believe in the system, because the system did not stand by us through things like this.”
Comedian draws attention to Cosby accusations
In the pantheon of America’s greatest comedians, they don’t get much bigger than Bill Cosby.
He broke though in the 1960s on the stand-up circuit with his reflections on everything growing up in Philadelphia to family life with his children and wife Camille. Cosby. His comedy albums became bestsellers and award-winners; he spearheaded numerous shows, from children’s programming like “Fat Albert” and Nick Jr.’s current “Little Bill” to his groundbreaking sitcom, “The Cosby Show.”
Cosby also became a well-known and respected voice on a host of hot-button issues.
“Bill Cosby is a gifted comedian who has used the power of laughter to heal wounds and to build bridges,” then-President George W. Bush said in awarding Cosby a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. “… By focusing on our common humanity, Bill Cosby is helping to create a truly united America.”
Yet Cosby’s reputation has come crashing down in a few short weeks.
It began in late October, when comedian Hannibal Buress bluntly attacked what he perceived as Cosby’s “smuggest old black man public persona” and called him a “rapist.”
Bowman said Tuesday that it “felt like a slap in the face” that it took a comedian’s comments on stage “for people to perk up their ears and think, ‘Oh, maybe there is something to this,’ when it’s such a serious situation.”
By that point, years had passed since Temple University staffer Andrea Constand had sued Cosby alleging she had been drugged and sexually violated in 2004 and that 13 other “Janes Does” had similar stories. Bowman wrote in the Washington Post that she was one of those women, but she never got the chance to testify because the lawsuit was settled. Had she gotten the chance, Bowman would have recalled her life as an aspiring model and actress in her late teens back in the mid-1980s, back when Cosby starred in his eponymous No. 1 TV show as a doting, wisecracking dad.
That was when, she claims, Cosby drugged and raped her, then told her, “‘I had better never, ever see your face or hear you name again.'”
After Buress’ remarks she decided to put herself out there.
“It was really, really scary. I really felt like I was out in the wilderness, all by myself,” Bowman told CNN. “And one of the things that I kept saying over and over again was, ‘If I could help one woman, just one, then I’ve done my job … But I had no idea how powerful it was really going to be for these women and other women who are still off the record.”
‘I thought I was the only one’
Valentino said she had thought of coming forward before herself, but stopped because “I couldn’t relive it, I couldn’t do it.”
But “it was a whole different ballgame” after Bowman took that first step, Valentino said. In the age of the Internet, she said, accusations couldn’t easily “be swept away into the shadows any more.”
Also on the CNN set Tuesday was Jewel Allison.
“For years, I thought that I was the only one,” said Allison, who claims Cosby sexually assaulted her in the late 1980s, when she was a model and aspiring actress. “I kept this as a secret … afraid no one is going to believe you, afraid society is going to victimize you.”
Allison said that, because she’s African-American, she was especially reluctant to speak out, as Cosby has long been revered in that community. About a decade ago, Allison said, a friend alleged to her that Cosby had done something similar to her, but Allison urged her “to keep quiet.”
“And I feel guilty, I feel horrible,” Allison said. “You’re raised to, ‘Shhh, don’t talk.'”
Now is different, though. Meeting face-to-face with Bowman and Valentino is part of her “healing process,” she said.
“It wasn’t about him, it was about what was best for me,” added Allison. “…When you tell the truth, it really does set you free. I never understood what that meant until now.”