On October 11th, 22 years ago, tens of millions of Americans watched, mesmerized as writer and Professor Anita Hill bravely testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the repeated acts of sexual harassment she suffered while working with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas would go on to become one of the Supreme Court’s most racially conservative Justices after infamously declaring his dealings with Prof. Hill a “high-tech lynching.”
Hill became the catalyst for a national discussion on sexual harassment in spite of the issue being a common experience. 60 Minutes recently posted a video of the full interview between Hill and the late Ed Bradley on their website, where Prof. Hill explains how she was publicly vilified and threatened. She also received letters of support from women who had similar experiences with sexual harassment. She said, “I did what my conscience told me I had to do, and you cannot fail when you do that.” While people have questioned why she waited 10 years to say something about the harassment she endured, and why she followed Thomas, to another job, Hill say her goal is to help people understand what other women experience and why women don’t come forward about sexual harassment: they blame themselves, their own behavior, their words, and their actions instead of blaming the men who have harassed them. Furthermore, as Hill’s case proved, women are told that they won’t be believed if they come forward. Not only will they not be believed but they would be made to be the culprit in these situations. Meanwhile, they feel the weight of both societal and economic pressures to stay quiet while still needing references to get their next job. So, they remain silent and try to just get through the abusive situation.
Even after her brave testimony many questions were left unanswered. In a new documentary, “Anita,” Hill tells her story for the very first time on film. The film’s director, Freida Mock, sheds light on how the U.S. viewed the issue of sexual harassment at the time of the Thomas hearings addresses some of the unanswered questions, such as the backroom agreement struck between then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Vice President Joe Biden, and Republicans on the committee, not to call three other witnesses who were ready to corroborate Hill’s story.
The documentary is well timed. Although Hill’s story took place twenty years ago, today, we are still grappling with sexual harassment and assaults in the workforce—including the two competing bills in the senate and the sexual harassment saga involving former San Diego mayor Bob Filner, who recently pleaded guilty on three charges involving three women.
Anita Hill inspires me and I was fortunate to have met her seven years ago at a conference that the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project sponsored at Brandeis University, “Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Sexual Legacy.” This conference provided a forum for leading intellectuals, activists, and the public to discuss overcoming slavery’s ongoing impact on sexuality. Presenters spoke on a wide range of topics, including the sexual dynamics of slavery and how to best move beyond racial stereotypes about sexuality.
Where were you on October 11, 1991? How can we as a nation move beyond the dynamics of “racialized sexism” to one that respects all women? Did your mom believe Anita Hill 22 years ago? Would she today? Would you?
by Samantha E. Erskine, Nonprofit Management M.S. degree candidate at the New School for Public Engagement