We still believe Anita Hill: Lessons of the backlash

September 27, 2018

Elizabeth Schulte looks back at the political climate surrounding the Anita Hill trial — and the lessons that it holds for the fight against Brett Kavanaugh today.

BY NOW, almost every media outlet in the country has drawn the analogy between Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and those 27 years ago for Clarence Thomas.

After Christine Blasey Ford came forward to say that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when he was in high school, the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared over the past week for what looks like it could be a replay of the interrogation of Anita Hill in 1991. As this article was being written, at least two more women have come forward to talk about their experiences with Kavanaugh.

For the masses of people radicalized, or re-radicalized, by #MeToo and the Women’s Marches, who look back in horror to 1991 at the image of a panel of white, male senators interrogating a Black woman as if she were the one on trial, the comparisons are obvious.

Alongside this image stands the seemingly never-ending stream of stories about men of privilege who are encouraged to wield power and take “what’s theirs” while being shielded from any sort of repercussions. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in her examination of white, wealthy male elites like Kavanaugh in the New York Times:

Regardless of what happens to Kavanaugh, however, this scandal has given us an X-ray view of the rotten foundations of elite male power. Despite Donald Trump’s populist posturing, there are few people more obsessed with Ivy League credentials. Kavanaugh’s nomination shows how sick the cultures that produce those credentials — and thus our ruling class — can be.

Protesters demand justice for Anita Hill outside the Supreme Court
Protesters demand justice for Anita Hill outside the Supreme Court

But there is an important distinction with 1991 being drawn today — by the protesters who gathered in the Senate halls chanting “We still believe Anita Hill! We believe Blasey Ford!”; by the women who joined thousands of others to tell their stories of yet-unreported sexual harassment with the hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport; by those who joined #BelieveSurvivors actions on September 24, walking out of work and school to attend protests against Kavanaugh’s confirmation; or by the 1,600 men who put their names to a New York Times ad supporting Kavanaugh’s accusers.

This time, survivors and their supporters are standing up and saying no.

Nonetheless, even in the face of this growing public rejection of sexism, sexism keeps fighting back — in the form of right-wing pundits, but also the president of the United States himself, who denies the accusations against Kavanaugh because he is a “high-quality person,” and his accuser was “drunk.”

#MeToo has given expression to the survivors of sexual assault and harassment who are demanding justice and who are ripping the masks off the men who have been shielded from justice. We have to keep building on this momentum if we’re going to push back the larger backlash against women’s rights.

Because like Anita Hill before her, the backlash against Blasey Ford isn’t about one appearance before a Senate committee, but a decades-long effort to turn back the gains of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

ON OCTOBER 11, 1991, then-University of Oklahoma Professor Anita Hill took the stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee to describe how Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor over the course of two years at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Yes, the EEOC — the agency charged with investigating charges of discrimination.

Hill went through the details of how Thomas asked her out and, after she said no, kept asking and started talking to her about sex. Hill recalled:

He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involving various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.

Within earshot of Hill one day at work, Thomas looked at a Coke can from which he was drinking and remarked, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”

The Senate committee charged with hearing Hill’s testimony — some who are still serving in the Senate, like Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and one who became vice president, then-Sen. Joe Biden — treated the process like an inquisition, second-guessing what Hill said she experienced and her motivations for coming forward.

Questioning by Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama was some of the worst of it, including the questions: “Are you a scorned woman?” “Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?” and “Do you have a martyr complex?”

In the end, Thomas was confirmed, with 11 Democratic “yes” votes decisive in the narrow 52-48 outcome.

There was some protest, though no large mobilizations. But in large part, outrage over the way that Hill was treated in the Senate hearings had few outlets, as women across the country watched the proceedings on television.

A notable exception was a New York Times ad organized by women calling themselves African American Women in Defense of Ourselves. Initiated by Elsa Barkley Brown, Deborah King, Barbara Ransby and others, in response to widespread support for Thomas even by notable figures like poet Maya Angelou, 1,600 Black women helped buy the ad, which stated in part:

This country, which has a long legacy of racism and sexism, has never taken the sexual abuse of Black women seriously. Throughout U.S. history Black women have been sexually stereotyped as immoral, insatiable, perverse; the initiators in all sexual contacts — abusive or otherwise. The common assumption in legal proceedings as well as in the larger society has been that Black women cannot be raped or otherwise sexually abused. As Anita Hill’s experience demonstrates, Black women who speak of these matters are not likely to be believed.

In 1991, we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman’s experience or this attack upon our collective character without protest, outrage and resistance.

As women of African descent, we express our vehement opposition to the policies represented by the placement of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. The Bush administration have obstructed the passage of civil rights legislation, impeded the extension of unemployment compensation, cut student aid and dismantled social welfare programs and continually demonstrated that it is not operating in our best interests. Nor is this appointee. We pledge ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice, no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.

FOR THE most part, however, the Thomas hearings were a vehicle not for supporters of Black women but for the right. The character assassination against Hill was in many ways successful, and polls at the time showed that support for Thomas increased after her testimony.

After his confirmation, the attacks on Hill continued. In March 1992, an article in the American Spectator by David Brock referred to Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” He would later write an entire book on the subject titled The Real Anita Hill.

This all came in the context of a broader assault on the gains made by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s in civil rights and women rights.

Within weeks of the Hill testimony, Susan Faludi’s book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women was published, exposing the right’s campaign to do away with things like abortion rights and affirmative action, while furthering the myth that feminism was “hurting women.”

As Faludi argued: “Women themselves don’t single out the women’s movement as the source of their misery. To the contrary, in national surveys, 75 to 95 percent of women credit the feminist campaign with improving their lives, and a similar proportion say that the women’s movement should keep pushing for change.”

On the issue of sexual assault, this meant reversing what had been won in terms of what defined rape. The women’s liberation movement helped change narrow conceptions about rape as being carried out by strangers in dark alleys. For the first time, it declared that sexual assault could be committed by a friend or a family member or a husband.

The concept of “sexual harassment” wasn’t widely accepted — until there were speak-outs by women who had experienced it in the 1970s.

DURING THE decades that followed, the right worked hard to reverse this sea change in public consciousness.

Months before the Thomas hearings happened, Time magazine ran a front-page article titled “Date Rape,” telling the story of Katie Koestner who was sexually assaulted by someone she knew in college. She faced a firestorm for speaking out, and contempt from her university administration.

Her rapist’s punishment was being banned from entering her dorm for the rest of the semester. “However,” Koestner recalled recently, “the dean’s off-the-record recommendation was that we should ‘get back together in the spring semester after our little tiff, because he really likes you a lot, and you make a nice couple.’”

Three years after Time told Koestner’s story, Katie Roiphe would publish the book The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, arguing that intolerant feminism had supposedly turned women into “victims” and made them overly “rape sensitive.”

Even today, women on college campuses continue to struggle to even be heard by university administrations.

So when the right wing took aim at Hill as unbelievable, it was taking aim at every women who dared to stand up to face their accuser — and trying to reverse what gains had been made in struggles decades before.

Hill did, however, get support from other women, who wrote letters sharing their stories about how much her speaking out meant to them. She wrote later:

People of all ages, races and backgrounds wrote. Just about every category of person imaginable who had seen, heard or read about the hearing took time to put their reactions into words...most were from strangers expressing their concern about what they had witnessed. “This is the first time I have ever written a public figure,” many began.

The letters spelled out a huge range of emotion, from sympathy to anger to joy. Many writers were outraged at what they considered insensitivity on the part of certain senators, or frustrated by the unsatisfactory resolution of the issue. Many had experienced sexual harassment firsthand. Many more related to sexual harassment as a violation of basic human dignity...

Each letter in its own way established a link between the writer and me. We had a common experience so potent as to create a bond between total strangers. “I feel like I know you,” many wrote.

That’s why we stand with Christine Blasey Ford, and why we still stand with Anita Hill — and all the other women of #MeToo who must not only be heard, but win the kind of society where abuse is never tolerated or ignored.

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