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I Rewatched Anita Hill’s Testimony. So Much Has Changed. So Much Hasn’t.

Decades later—even after #MeToo—we are seeing again why it’s so hard for women to come forward.
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Now, it might seem, is the golden age of female agency—a newly empowered era for women, or something approaching it, a time when cheeky porn stars taunt presidents on Twitter, fed-up movie actresses tell what producers did to them in hotel rooms and restaurant basements, and serial abusers suffer, at long last, some consequences for their acts. Somewhere, as I write this, a once-obscure psychologist named Christine Blasey Ford is asserting her right to tell her story in her own time in her own way—bartering with U.S. senators, staffers and lawyers about exactly how she will testify to her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party when she was 15 and he was 17, a charge Kavanaugh denies.

Amid the controversy over Ford’s much-anticipated public appearance tentatively set for this coming week, the precedent often invoked is the moment, almost exactly 27 years ago, when a little-known law professor named Anita Hill appeared before a Senate panel to testify to her own allegations that another conservative Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her, a charge that Thomas, too, denied. If you are looking for something to stream this weekend, you could do worse than to watch the full, riveting C-SPAN footage of the Hill-Thomas hearings, in which, for the first time in American history, the august walls of the Senate—and a watching nation—absorbed public talk of things like oral sex and pornography and male entitlement, so shocking then, so drearily familiar now.

In many ways, the climate for accusers is better in 2018 than it was in 1991. For one thing, there now exist four women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, compared with zero back when Hill appeared, a lone figure with a microphone and a glass of water, in the packed caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building. Thanks to the courage of victims and the work of reporters, the public attitude toward allegations of sexual assault and harassment has shifted from default skepticism toward cautious willingness to believe. There are more female lawyers, better and smarter preparation for women before they come forward. If nothing else, any victim preparing to talk about harassment or abuse knows, by now, to expect her credibility to be challenged and her morals impugned.

But much, alas, remains strikingly as it was. Some of the senators hearing Ford’s testimony, if she presents it, will be the same men who lined up across from Hill, and ended up confirming the man she said harassed her. Even now, any woman coming forward, particularly in an environment so charged and partisan, knows that the fury of an entire (and very furious) political movement will descend upon her. When it comes to a Supreme Court nomination, the stakes—the makeup of the highest court in the land, President Donald Trump’s ability to deliver the conservative court his base desires—are unimaginably high. Point being: Even now, even given the remarkable climate-change wrought by the #MeToo moment, we are seeing in real time how women can be intimidated by everything from the attacks they face to the constrictions placed on how they can tell their stories.

Any woman, like Ford, voicing allegations in such a pressure-cooker setting must know that her participation will be judged, that it will show up in her obituary someday, unbidden, as part of her life story—and part of the story of the nation. If you don’t believe that, ask Anita Hill, whose testimony altered her life’s course and exposed her in ways she couldn’t have imagined. Yet, that testimony has also stood the test of time. All those years ago, she foretold truths about human behavior that would not be fully acknowledged for a quarter-century.

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To refresh the memory: In 1991, Judge Clarence Thomas was nominated to take the seat of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He underwent an unremarkable Senate confirmation process—until a report was leaked to the media showing that Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor, had told FBI investigators that Thomas had made uninvited sexual comments when she worked for him at two different government agencies. In the ensuing uproar, hearings were re-opened, and Hill, who said she never intended to go public, came forward to deliver sworn testimony. The upshot was one of the most gripping Senate hearings ever, as a 35-year-old African-American woman sat at a green-draped table before an all-white, all-male panel and calmly enumerated her charges. Watching the hearings today, you notice right away what hasn’t changed. Why, there is Democratic Senator Joe Biden, his hair not yet white, chairing the committee. There is a youthful Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the man who chairs it today. And there in a pinstriped shirt is Orrin Hatch, another Republican who dismissed the Hill charges as “scurrilous” and has now said, dismissively, of Ford that she must be “mistaken” about Kavanaugh.

After some oddly mesmerizing footage of the 14 senators whispering and shuffling papers as they await her arrival, Hill enters the hearing room wearing a double-breasted turquoise suit featuring the shoulder pads so many working women wore back in 1991—literal as well as metaphorical armor designed to mimic the silhouette of a man, at a time when we thought doing so might be helpful. Wearing a stoic demeanor and just the right hint of fuchsia lipstick, Hill swears to tell the truth, sits down, cranes toward the microphone and begins speaking, saying, “Mr. Chairman.” She is immediately interrupted, as Biden tells the officers of the Senate to make sure the doors remain closed while she delivers her statement. It is a small moment, but telling. These days, the experience of being interrupted is all too familiar to many women, who, if they have read Lean In or any of a zillion studies about women and work, well know that women are interrupted more than men.

Back in 1991 Hill, polite and unperturbed, merely started over. “My name is Anita F. Hill,” she says in the footage, in a voice rich with conviction but also with suppressed emotion. “My childhood was one of a lot of hard work and not much money,” she tells the committee, explaining that she was born on a farm in Oklahoma, the youngest in a family of 13 kids. She talks about her Baptist faith; about going to Oklahoma State University and law school at Yale; taking a job with a private firm in Washington, but wanting to do work that felt, to her, more fulfilling and socially useful. In 1981, a colleague introduced her to Clarence Thomas, who was soon appointed assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, and invited her to come along as his attorney adviser.

What she said next is (we know now) straight out of the Sexual Harassment 101 handbook. Hill assumed—as women do—that the job offer was based on merit. “I thought he respected my work and that he trusted my judgment,” she said in the hearing. Within three months, however, Thomas began to chip away at that happy notion, pressuring her to go out with him and drawing pushback from Hill, who thought it was inappropriate and told him so. Her boss, she alleged, continued to press her, and sought private opportunities to discuss his sexual prowess and his porn-watching habits, describing films involving group sex, rape and women having sex with animals. Hill, she says, was horrified. She told him the talk made her uncomfortable and would try to “change the subject,” a textbook response to such a skin-crawling situation. All this, Hill was forced to utter at a time when the American public was not yet inured to primetime talk of salacious sexual details, nor had any idea what it cost a woman to relive those moments of disgust and degradation. “It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and a number of sleepless nights that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends,” Hill said, continuing, “Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life, but it is very close to having to live through the experience that occasioned this meeting.” 

In the years that followed, much was made of the fact that Hill was obliged to testify before a committee of only men, sitting there in their coats and ties—a “manel” before the phrase was coined. But it was more than just any manel. Flanking Biden on one side was Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, whose illustrious family—let’s be honest—includes men who have done as much damage to women as they have done good for the country, with offenses including serial infidelity, an affair with a babysitter and even deaths, including that of Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned when Kennedy drove a car off a bridge. Kennedy and his pal, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, were notorious for alcohol-infused misbehavior that, by one account, included a game of “waitress toss,” which is just what it sounds like.

On the other side of Biden sat Strom Thurmond, the bespectacled ranking minority member, stroking his pomaded hair and looking impassive as Hill talked about how humiliated she felt by Thomas’ alleged treatment. In addition to being a segregationist and racist, Thurmond was a known sexual harasser (“in the category of his own,” as NPR’s Cokie Roberts would later put it, describing the time he kissed her on the mouth at a political convention)—something everybody in the Senate accepted because, well, that was Strom, and he was awfully, you know, old. A few years after this hearing, one of the women elected in the wave of outrage that followed Thomas’ confirmation, Senator Patty Murray, would get in an elevator with Thurmond, who groped her breast—assuming, presumably, that she was just another intern or staffer and asserting what he considered his droit de seigneur. A newly arrived Republican Senator Susan Collins would take the stairs to avoid getting in the senators’ elevator with Thurmond, despite the fact that she was his peer and entitled to ride it. A colleague would notice—and laugh.

These, then, were the sages listening as Hill articulated the kind of agony and self-doubt felt by the many actresses, software engineers, producers and journalists whose collective experience would emerge during the cascade of #MeToo allegations: A powerful man will take your ambition, your hopes, your self-respect, your intelligence, your trust, and he will use them to his own purposes. “It was almost as though he wanted me at a disadvantage,” Hill reflected under questioning. She understood that it wasn’t sex he was after, necessarily, but the ability to make her vulnerable. At the time, few recognized that what Thomas allegedly did to Hill was classic predator-boss behavior. She described how she had tried to stand up for herself—apparently lacking confidence that she could approach, say, a human resources professional to handle things for her. In this, her behavior remains true of most employees: According to a 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even now, the least common response to harassment is to take action by reporting it or filing a complaint. The study notes that the most common responses are to avoid the harasser, downplay the gravity of what happened, or “attempt to ignore, forget or endure the behavior.” The reason? People who are harassed, the report says, fear disbelief, inaction, blame or retaliation. Exactly what Hill says she did and experienced. 

For a time, Hill said, Thomas’ behavior abated. In 1982, when her boss took over as chair of none other than the EEOC, he invited her to follow him, and she did, something the committee would home in on as suspiciously career-minded—but which we also know, now, is common. “I needed the job,” Hill explained. There was no permanent slot for her at the Department of Education, which President Ronald Reagan wanted to abolish, and she wanted to continue working in civil rights. Not only did her boss allegedly resume his behavior, but it got weirder. He talked about his penis size, his penchant for oral sex. In one of the most startling allegations, Hill said that at one point Thomas got a can of Coke and asked who had put “pubic hair” on it. After this, pubic hair became a kind of national running joke, at a time when an ordinary American might have had a hard time believing a grown man, and an accomplished one, would fixate on such a strange and graphic detail. Now, it’s unsurprising to read allegations of men doing all kinds of strange and graphic things: masturbating into a potted plant, asking a victim to watch him take a shower, locking a woman in his office and raping her.

During her testimony, Hill talked about the toll this took. Thomas, she said, began to exhibit displeasure, and she worried she would lose her job. In February 1983, she said, she was hospitalized for stomach pain she attributed to stress. She began to look for a job and found a teaching position at Oral Roberts University. After that, when people would say admiring things about Thomas, she would murmur something agreeable but non-committal. The committee grilled her on this—how could she have agreed? How could she have had even infrequent contact with Thomas in later years, by, say, phoning to pass along messages from others? She explained that to tell the world about Thomas would gain her nothing and cost her much. “I could not afford to antagonize a person in such a high position,” she said, summarizing the predicament of so many working women. There was not yet an #IBelieveHer hashtag. There were not yet hashtags at all. She was in this largely alone. The ordeal would ruin her career in government—she was effectively run out of public service.

The committee did not, at the time, understand that these things are stock behavior. What it did do was ask her to repeat some of the most painful details. Biden wanted to hear the Coke-can-pubic-hair story again. He asked her which incident was the most embarrassing. When she said it was when Thomas talked about the pornography showing large-breasted women having sex with people and animals, Republican Senator Arlen Specter took this opportunity to tell Hill that “breasts” is an ordinary word. “This is not too bad,” he mansplained at a time when mansplaining was not yet a known concept. She stood up for herself: “It wasn’t just the breasts; it was the continuation of his story about what happened in those films with the people with this characteristic, physical characteristic.”

Specter asked her why she had not given every last detail she was sharing in the hearing room—such as the Coke-can episode—to the FBI agents who had interviewed her before the hearing, and whose report, according to the White House, had exonerated Thomas. One agent was female, one was male. “I was very uncomfortable talking to the FBI agent about that,” Hill said. “I am very uncomfortable now.” Specter wanted to know why she had not asked the male agent to leave. He wanted to know why she hadn’t filed a complaint against her boss, Thomas—when Specter could equally well have asked why there wasn’t a better HR department at the EEOC, of all places, to make sure she felt supported. He wanted to know instead why she did not handle all of this by herself, ousting the head of the whole commission. In her response, Hill did what women often do—blamed herself. “I may have shirked a duty,” she said. “I am very sorry that I did not do something or say something.” At the time, there was not yet a vast body of social-science literature on women’s tendency to over-apologize.

Hill was pilloried for coming forward. Conservative (at the time) writer David Brock called her “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” (a jeer he would later recant). She was accused of having a “fantasy” about Thomas; of being spurned by him; of making it all up. There are still people who don’t believe her. I did then, and always have. There is a deeply moving moment after Hill delivers her opening statement, when the hearing doors are opened and her family enters the ornate caucus room. Biden wants them to be able to sit near her. She warns him, “It is a very large family, senator.” Chairs are procured, and her elderly mother and father come to sit near her, along with siblings, lining up, filing in, bending down, hugging her. She hugs them back, gracefully and gratefully. It is hard to imagine why a woman would endure what she did, if it were not true, and why her family would travel to show their support and love. 

***

These days, Christine Blasey Ford’s experience feels slightly different from that of Anita Hill. Ideologues haven’t coined the same sexist epithets. As of this writing, the organized defense of Kavanaugh seemed to entail inviting people, including women, to testify to his character, rather than to impugn hers. Women often do feel more empowered: Stormy Daniels is lobbing her saucy tweets in the direction of the White House; the women of Silicon Valley have formed advocacy groups to make the tech industry friendlier to them; Hollywood actresses are launching defense funds for hotel workers and lower-income women. Everybody knows, now, that pornography is a major industry. Men have been suspended, fired, charged criminally, even convicted for harassment and assault; in some cases, women have been promoted into their places.

Then again, the digital age brings new peril for victims coming forward. Ford has been the target of unfounded internet rumors—about her career, her family, her politics—and now, having received death threats, has had to vacate her house. President Trump, having managed to restrain himself for five days, sounded an awful lot like the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when he blew the why-didn’t-she-come-forward-sooner whistle on Twitter on Friday: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.” An aide for the now 84-year-old Orrin Hatch was among those hyping what turned out to be a conspiracy-laden Twitter thread insinuating that Ford had simply mixed up Kavanaugh for another classmate at that high school party. (“Zero chance,” Ford corrected; the Hatch staffer took back his support for the author of the conspiracy theory.)

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