Hill’s 1991 testimony in D.C. still teachable moment
By Lou Fancher
Twenty-seven years after testifying before a U.S. Senate Judiciary committee about sexual harassment she experienced while working for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Brandeis University law professor Anita Hill continues to be a torchbearer.
Invited by the Women and Gender Studies Department of Saint Mary’s College in Moraga to speak during Women’s History Month, Hill’s message underscored the connectivity of history and the overall fight for civil rights.
Until there is eradication of institutional and societal bias — gender, race, religious, ethnic or other — she told the audience of approximately 500 people that progress will be limited. Promising “a two-for-one” that offered comments on women’s issues and matters of race, Hill said 1991, like 2017, was a pivotal time when it came to civil rights and the politics of power.
But unlike the era when sexual harassment in the workplace and schools was denied, if even mentioned, she said students who were “merely a thought in 1991” grew up understanding sexual harassment is against the law.
Although problems still abound and the loss of legal protections after the 2016 presidential election she said are again threatened, Hill emphasized that women’s experiences today are a far cry from the reception she received in Washington, D.C.
“I’m going to name names,” she said, before briefly outlining the events of 1991. Hill said that testifying before the committee she had expected the senators to rely on research, social science experts and lawyers to be informed.
“They did none of that,” she said. “It was the politics of power that informed their thinking. (Power) looked like them and not like me.”
She said Sen. Joe Biden called “a slew” of women who hadn’t been harassed, but not the three women, who like Hill, had experienced harassment. Sen. John Danforth said erotomania had driven her testimony.
“There was a lot of fake news there; lot of alternative facts,” she said to the audience at Saint Mary’s, to much applause.
Sen. Orin Hatch waved a copy of “The Exorcist” and suggested her claim was demonically possessed or pulled from the book’s pages.
Clarence Thomas said he was a victim of high-tech lynching.
“He portrayed himself a victim of racism that I had instigated,” she said. “There is no documented case of lynching that ever occurred because of the abuse of an African American woman.”
What evolved from the hearings, according to Hill, was the idea that the experience of racism has only a male face. All biases express themselves individually, she said, but combine to form one picture of inequality.
“They interlock, integrate and intersect each other. Women and men come in all forms and a whole variety of sexual identities. If we do not understand that, we will never see an end to any one discrimination. If you are willing only to protect one-half of your population, you will never eliminate your problems.”
Despite becoming a lightning rod for people who she said “were pushing democracy back” and political factions today that “are dividing people because of their differences,” Hill found a hopeful note.
In 1991, when pundits said no woman would step forward to claim sexual harassment after seeing Hill publicly vilified, “women came out in droves, won in court, joined forces to support candidates for change” and more.
“I have seen the resistance,” she said. “We began to re-imagine equality and effect change. We opened up a can of worms and they’re not going back in. It doesn’t matter who’s in the Supreme Court or who’s in the White House. We’ll find a way to engage, enlighten and progress.”
Teaching facts and critical thinking, supporting research that shows that societies benefit from greater inclusion, building legal arguments and coalitions that protect civil rights, listening across generations, resisting not just “one-off prejudice” but recognizing and working to change the institutional structures that undergird bias Hill said were steps people can take on a day-to-day basis.
“It won’t always be easy or appreciated, but it will give a chance for everyone to be brave, be who you are, stand for something that is right and good and best for our democracy.”
Asked often if she would “do it all again,” Hill was unequivocal. “Yes. I found my voice and I do not intend to lose it again.”