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The Optimism of Anita Hill

Anita Hill | Credit: Courtesy UCSB Arts & Lectures

Talking Biden, Kavenaugh & willfull ignorance with #metoo’s OG hero

Before there was a Weinstein trial, before there was a Kavanaugh hearing, and before there were fed-up females shouting #MeToo in chilling harmony from rooftops ’round the nation, there was Anita Hill. Stoic, young, and starkly alone, she sat in an unforgettable teal dress before a pride of powerful white men and revealed the sordid details of her boss’s sexual harassment.

It was 1991, and her story might not have gotten any attention at all ​— ​except that this particular boss was about to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the United States Supreme Court.

Hill, an honors graduate of Yale Law School and the youngest of 13 children born to Oklahoma farmers, testified that during the years she worked for Clarence Thomas ​— ​including, ironically, at the government agency responsible for adjudicating sexual harassment claims ​— ​he had repeatedly asked her out, described his anatomy and sexual prowess, made reference to pubic hair on his soda can, and talked about porn depicting bestiality, group sex, and rape scenes.

Hill’s opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee ​— ​and to a nation watching on television, at Super Bowl–level ratings ​— ​is listed as No. 69 in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century. She passed a lie-detector test (Thomas refused to take one), and several other women reportedly came forward to testify in her same vein but were never given the chance.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by then-Senator Joe Biden, grilled her in excruciating detail, questioned her motives, asked if she was “a scorned woman” with a “martyr complex,” and accused her of lying and of “erotomania,” the delusion that another person is in love with you.

Thomas was confirmed 52-48 and is now the most senior associate justice on the Supreme Court.

But Hill, who speaks at UCSB Arts & Lectures on Wednesday, February 19, became a symbol for women’s newfound voice against workplace inequality. Sexual harassment claims nearly tripled in the immediate aftermath of the hearing as women felt empowered to speak up.

Now a professor of sociology, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, Hill wrote an op-ed in the New York Times during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings that implored the Senate to do a better job this time around in its handling of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations of the Supreme Court nominee. She hoped that “years of hindsight, mounds of evidence of the prevalence and harm that sexual violence causes individuals and our institutions, as well as a Senate with more women than ever” would result in a better process. No dice.

But Hill is also leading a commission that’s tackling sexual abuse and harassment in the media and entertainment industries ​— ​and swears they’re making good progress. “We’re going into our third full year of operation and have just launched the first industry-wide survey to gauge: What is the culture, what are the problems, and what resources do people need to be able to navigate their difficulties and have their voices heard?” she told me during a recent conversation. “We’re developing a system for people to come forward. I want to make sure everybody has someplace to go and can have a thorough, fair, transparent investigation. We’ll be launching by the end of the year.”

We also talked about her testimony 28 years ago, and I found her words surprisingly inspiring and uplifting in the current climate.

Rewatching your testimony from 1991, I’m struck by how calm and unflappable you appear. How did you maintain that demeanor through three days of testimony before all of those angry old white men?  I guess it must be my natural demeanor. I’m glad people thought that I was calm and composed, but part of me also says, what if someone comes forward and they’re not calm? How do we interpret that? How do we make sure that we can come as we are, and who we are, when we have this kind of experience in our lives and we need to talk about it?

Indeed, Christine Blasey Ford appeared to be terrified during the Kavanaugh hearing ​— ​and of course, as women, we’re damned if we do emote and we’re damned if we don’t. Were you in touch with Ms. Ford to offer advice?  We have connected, but I consider our conversations private, and I want to keep them that way. One of the reasons I’m so respectful of her and any survivor I speak with is when you’re in these situations, so much of your personal life is revealed that you want to regain that privacy back. I have connected over the years with many who have experienced some form of sexual misconduct or abuse, and we have to understand what an invasion occurs once you’re in the limelight in that way.

It’s hard for a rational and educated person to hear the inane questions that senators asked of both you and Ford ​— ​questions like, “Why didn’t you leave sooner or say something sooner?” Are Americans truly that ignorant about the complexities of power? Is it willful ignorance? Or is it just courtroom showmanship designed to make the victim look bad?  I don’t know if it’s willful or if it’s because they haven’t had to face the question [themselves]. We are conditioned to believe that if something is bad, women will just come forward, when in fact evidence shows that when they come forward, things often get worse! We ignore that part of it and still ask those questions.

Going into your hearing, were you expecting the process, or its outcome, to be different than it was?  I tried not to have any expectations of the senators, and only to focus on the expectations I had for myself: to be as clear as possible and tell the truth, and why it was important.

As an attorney, did the hearing test your faith in the law?  My faith in the law is as sound as it ever was, not because I think the law is perfect, but because I realize how important it is. I still have confidence in it because I know that it has evolved so much from what even my parents experienced. My mother was born in 1911, my father in 1912. The law that they saw was entirely dismissive of them as humans. So I know the law can change and evolve.

Though Judge Thomas was confirmed, some good things did happen as a result of that hearing. How do you think we benefited as a society?  The thing that gets underestimated is the private sharing of experiences. What kept some people from understanding and believing the stories of survivors is that they haven’t personally been touched. And when 1991 happened, I would hear from people who said, “I never shared my story with anyone before, and now I’m sharing it with my daughter” or “I’m sharing it with my spouse.”

There is all kinds of value to come from that: value to the individuals who can now tell their stories, to the people hearing it because they now can understand. It’s not quantifiable value like filing a complaint, but being relieved of that burden creates stronger and more honest relationships.

Through the course of events that you didn’t have a lot of say in, you became a symbol for women’s rights and justice. You seem to wear that mantle fairly easily now, but you’re a brilliant woman with a long and impressive career outside of that hearing. I can’t help but wonder: If not for that … what might you have been known for?  [Chuckles.] I certainly had other things in mind for my career, but I tell you: This is the career I was supposed to have. I did not have a sense of the enormity of this problem, and how many ways it was out there manifesting itself in people’s lives. Knowing that, it has been impossible for me to just walk away from it.

The thing I’m grateful for now is I do feel society is moving forward.

You do?  When Dr. Ford testified, after her testimony, a majority of the population thought that Brett Kavanaugh should not have been confirmed; that’s a change in public consciousness.

And yet, he was confirmed!  Don’t measure progress by the ideas of one very small group of individuals, even those that are in power. I refuse. And I think we should all refuse.

We should know that there is an appetite for understanding and believing victims and wanting to improve the world for all of us. I keep my mind focused on that.

Joe Biden contacted you recently to express some regret for what you endured in 1991. Do you believe people can change?  I do believe people can change. But for me, at this point, it’s not about me and Joe Biden. It’s about, What are we going to do as a country?

We have taken some issues that seriously impact people, like smoking for example, and put resources toward helping people understand them. We should put that kind of energy toward gender-based violence. We’re talking about a huge portion of the population [that is impacted by this]. And we need leadership that understands that.

Could Biden be that person?  I think anybody who wants to can be that person if they will step up. And I believe anybody who wants to be the leader of this country should step up.

If, say, Justice Thomas had a crisis of conscience and decided he also owed you a phone call, what would you want to hear from him at this point?  I won’t answer that. I don’t even think about it.

If you could suggest one specific thing we could all do to improve the culture for victims of sexual or gender violence, what would it be?  We need to change our way of thinking. We see domestic abuse and sexual assault or harassment as personal issues that don’t have impact outside of where they take place. This kind of behavior impacts all of us as a society, as family members, coworkers, even as people in a community who are walking on the same street. I use a phrase from Martin Luther King: “What impacts one directly impacts many people indirectly,” and we need to understand that. 

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