Anita Hill Talks Sexual Harassment, Race, Women In Politics, And Her Landmark 1991 Hearing

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You may have recently seen the HBO original film ‘Confirmation’ starring Kerry Washington as Anita Hill, recounting the story of the highly controversial senate hearing regarding sexual harassment toward Anita on behalf of Judge Clarence Thomas, who was at the same time about to be confirmed as Supreme Court Justice.

It was the Senate Judicial Hearing that captured the nation in 1991, and completely changed the way we talk about sexual harassment and power dynamics. While Clarence Thomas ended up being confirmed to the court and Anita never got the justice she was looking for, the result of her bravely sitting before an all-male, white cis-gender Senate panel made a bold statement to women lived their lives silently hiding their own sexual assault.

Anita’s voice became the catalyst for many more women running for office to change laws regarding sexual harassment, women (and men) speaking up about their abuse instead of staying quiet and letting their attackers go unpunished, and the problematic way race and gender often get intertwined to the detriment of victims.

In a recent interview with Time magazine, law professor Anita, who after taking a 3 year break has gone back to teaching at Brandeis University, says she enjoyed her biographical portrayal in the HBO drama and that she didn’t mind the incident being brought up again 25 years later.

“We have an entire generation of people who were not even born at that time. It will help them understand where we come from and hopefully give them information to keep going forward,” she said.

The legacy that has been created since her hearing, and which is very much a national conversation today, is the public discussion around sexual assault and rape on college campuses, for instance.

“That’s the legacy that I want [college students] to remember. They don’t necessarily need to know my name, but to take that away. You see that on campuses with Title IX, they’re standing up for themselves. They’re filing complaints. And I hope that the film can bring new energy and new inspiration to them,” she said.

Anita says it also exposed the problem of how people in positions of power and leadership often don’t handle sexual assault in the best way, when there are other dynamics (American politics, confirmation of a SCOTUS judge) at play.

“The hearing also influenced how employers would react to sexual harassment, how universities would react to it, and we’re still trying to dig out from that. The Senate, instead of reflecting the best practices that had been developed at that point, lapsed into combativeness. The hearings showed people what happens when representatives don’t make a real attempt to get to the bottom of issues and to understand how sexual harassment works,” she said.

One of the most pivotal and controversial remarks made by anyone during the 1991 hearing was when Clarence Thomas, who denied all accusations against him, claimed the hearing was a “high-tech lynching”, effectively turning was was clearly NOT a race argument, into something racially charged. Anita told Time that this comment made it seem as if his experience as a black man all of a sudden became more important than her experience as a black woman.

“I felt as though it again dismissed all African-American women and the significance of our racial experience. Let me just say, African-American women have been lynched. And maybe even more important, the whole history of sexual violence and injustices that have been heaped upon African-American women was missing from his narrative. I think it was deliberately excluded,” she said.

An interesting participant in the hearing was the Senate Judiciary Chairman, Joe Biden. Yes, the current Vice President, who was also a chief architect and champion of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. While today his commanding voice in the ‘Its On Us’ campaign which urges men to be better advocates speaking out against sexual assault and rape is very important and progressive, back in 1991 he wasn’t as vocal.

Anita said she has not spoken to him since the hearing, and felt disappointed that as the Chairman he did not bring in the three extra female witnesses to claimed to also have been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. In the HBO film, we are told that due to a backroom deal with one of the Republican members on the panel, Senator Biden chose to not allow any other witness testimony.

At the end of the film, we are told that after the hearing, a record number of women ran for office in the House of Representatives, and today, although collectively women only represent less than 20%, the prospect of Hillary Clinton being nominated as the country’s first female president is something that resonates deeply with Anita in terms of the issues (like sexual harassment) women face.

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“I think we need a female President. It’s very symbolic. People sort of say, “Oh well, that’s not anything.” But I think it’s a lot. We know from research that girls — and boys — respond to role models, and to have women as models of leadership I think is significant to [children’s] development. But we also have to have someone who really understands the experiences of women, at work and in the home, in terms of policies need to be developed to address questions of equality — why we need equal pay or access to childcare or family leave,” she explained.

Anita shared her opinion on the Donald Trump phenomenon and how his persona is sending a very regressive message about how to treat women.

“Whether we vote for the person or not, the President is a model. The President sets the standard for public discourse, for how young people in particular imagine leadership. The things that come from Donald Trump’s mouth about women, that sends a horrible message,” she said

Since Hillary has run for President a second time, the Monica Lewinsky scandal has surfaced in a media quite a few times (like Anita, Hillary can’t seem to escape relentless media attacks of a certain nature, where as men like Donald Trump and others easily get a free pass…). Anita was asked her opinion on the way the media positions the topics as a “woman vs woman” battle, and how it detracts from the specifics of the issue. The difference between Anita’s experience and Monica’s, was that the former White House intern’s affair with former President Bill Clinton was consensual.

“Even if it was consensual, that power imbalance was damaging. It sent a message to young women in the workplace about how to “get ahead.” And that to me was one of the issues we miss when we say it’s two people with a power imbalance, but it was consensual,” she said.

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On the positive side, we have come to a place in our history where women are more inclined to speak up about their experience and that is going to change the way sexual assault and harassment will be discussed by the media.

“Unfortunately, the narrative pits women against each other, and that is sadly typical in the media. But I’m hoping with more inclusive voices in the media we will be able to tell the story about women’s experiences in a way that’s true to what those experiences are,” said Anita.

She says that as women, we need to speak up for one another, and the world needs to see us doing this in order to have a domino effect. Anita pointed to the example of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg publicly advocating for Lily Ledbetter’s case which helped push it forward, and the women of the Congress who were the real instigators in forcing Senator Joe Biden to take up Anita’s case against Clarence Thomas. This is clearly shown in the HBO film.

“I will say: if those women from Congress had not marched over to the Senate and demanded a hearing, I do not think it would have happened. That, to me, is leadership. And that’s why we need more women in leadership positions. We haven’t even come close in terms of representation to a critical mass,” said Anita.

From a case where race, gender and sexism collided in an event watched by 20 million people around the country, although we still have a long way to go to reach a level of equality where no one is discriminated against, we can trace the progress terms of education and awareness about the damaging effects of sexual assault and abuse of power over 25 years. Anita Hill is living proof that speaking up is never a waste of time.

Take a look at an interview of Anita with PBS’ Gwen Ifill, where she talks more about the HBO movie, and why she would do the whole hearing all over again if she had to:


 

 

2 Comments

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