Eleanor J. Bader reviews “I Still Believe Anita Hill: Three Generations Discuss the Legacies of Speaking Truth to Power”, highlighting the continuing challenge of confronting sexual harassment despite the legacy of Anita Hill’s testimony bringing the crime to light 20 years ago and the ensuing conflict over gender and racial loyalties.
Certain dates, we’re told, live in infamy. For baby boomers, there’s the day John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. Younger folks will likely remember learning of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, while others will easily recall where they were during the fall of 1991, when former federal worker Anita Hill went before the US Senate Judiciary Committee and testified that Clarence Thomas, a man nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice – and her former supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – had sexually harassed her.
I Still Believe Anita Hill: Three Generations Discuss the Legacies of Speaking Truth to Power reflects on the hearings and the political upheaval they caused. And while Thomas’ nomination was ultimately confirmed, the book’s 30 essays, poems and memoir fragments zero in on the tumultuous impact of the weekend on the overall body politic. The collection, which includes contributions from women and men spanning three generations – including one not yet born at the time of Hill’s testimony – is sometimes scholarly, sometimes brash and always riveting.
Attorney Kimberle Williams Crenshaw sets the hearings in historical context by situating Hill’s brave presentation within the lived experience of generations of African American women. “Sexual harassment has been a staple of Black women’s employment since their arrival in the New World,” she begins. “Tales of sexual abuse at the hands of employers were passed down, mother to daughter.” Yet the instant Clarence Thomas denounced the hearings as nothing short of a “high-tech lynching,” Crenshaw reports that everything changed. “Hill’s testimony,” she continues, “became something else altogether – a white woman’s thing, a complaint that conjured up images of the lying, finger-pointing Miss Ann, whose cries of sexual violation nurtured the South’s tragic crop of ‘Strange Fruit.'”
Law Professor Lani Guinier describes the searing impact of this assertion. In her essay, she recounts the experience of an African American friend who received an anonymous – and bizarre – voice-mail message asking her to declare her allegiance. The male caller, she writes, asked her friend to choose between being black and being female. “The question,” she writes, “arose from an implicit ultimatum for racial unity. Racial unity, in his eyes, was a necessary part of the act of bearing witness. Both the listener and the questioner were forcefully propelled to engage directly with the claim that a person of color cannot have multiple identities.”
But quite obviously they can – a fact underscored by Clarence Thomas himself – an African American man who claims membership in conservative Christian circles.
Still, despite racial polarization and the intentional pitting of anti-feminist black men and pro-feminist black women against one another, Guinier concludes, the weekend presaged a paradigm shift of monumental proportions. Not only did sexual harassment become fodder for dinner table conversation, it became a topic of conversation in places that typically steered clear of such discourse – churches, synagogues and the hallowed halls of a once all-male Congress. “We bore common witness and ultimately began to experience a collective awakening,” she writes. “We discovered a common truth: All the women are not white, all the blacks are not men and some of us, especially when we organize and work together, are very brave.”
This sea change is not insignificant, and Yale Law School professor Judith Resnik reminds readers that prior to the 1970s – 20 years before Hill stood up and spoke her mind – no one would have thought to question potential justices about their attitudes toward female coworkers. The fact that Hill testified at all, she writes, suggests the impact of late 20th century feminism. “Once, such allegations would simply have been dismissed, and no hearing would have been held. Once, some men would have assumed they could exercise that privilege over women’s bodies or that such actions were not so improper as to be subject to an inquiry. But by 1991, winks and nods no longer sufficed.”
At the same time, writer after writer makes mention of the abuse heaped on Hill, from assertions that she was “a woman scorned” to outright name calling: In some eyes, Hill was little more than an Aunt Thomasina, a media hound, and a bitter, lonely spinster.
Twenty years hence, this response continues to reverberate, and female claimants are still routinely treated as if they are to blame for the inappropriate behavior they experience. Julie Zeilinger, founder of the F Bomb, a blog written by and for teenaged feminists, notes that even among those born after 1991, “there’s a disconnect between the message that sexual harassment is wrong and the understanding necessary to integrate this principle into our own lives. We know sexual harassment is bad, but we don’t always know what to do when the hypothetical becomes real.” Zeilinger also mentions another troubling trend: The continued tendency to cast doubt on women when they complain, as if they are overly sensitive, humorless or, worse, at fault for provoking the behavior.
The anthology’s contributors – including Anita Hill – don’t offer a game plan for stopping sexual harassment. Nonetheless, I Still Believe Anita Hill includes information on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, alongside concrete data about filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A list of organizations that help women navigate the bureaucratic waters is also provided.
It’s a good start, reopening an important conversation about behaviors that continue to keep women from being all they might be. Hill’s poised delivery – her decision to speak truth to power, if you will – expanded our understanding of this obstacle to women’s equality. That we still have a long way to go is blatantly clear, but in urging us to believe Anita Hill – and women like Nafissatou Diallo, whose rape claims against France’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, were similarly belittled – an international coalition of feminists has demonstrated a commitment to ending sexual harassment and violence against women. Indeed, feminists the world over have declared that they will agitate and organize until the men-will-be-men ethos of yesteryear is finally and forever relegated to history’s trashbin. What’s more, they’ve chosen sides, opting to believe Anita Hill and the thousands of other women who have been abused, intimidated and maligned.