Last week Harvard’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice sponsored a screening of the film Anita: Speaking Truth to Power.For me the afternoon was an emotional roller coaster, a visceral reminder of the power and the risks of speaking out.
The film tells the story of Anita Hill’s testimony during the October 1991 US Senate hearings for President George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Hill’s testimony, carried on live television, reverberated throughout the country. Never before had the sexism and racism of the overwhelmingly white male majority of the US Congress been so publically exposed. The all white, all male Senate Committee quizzed the young University of Oklahoma Law School professor relentlessly. They repeatedly asked her to re-state the precise details of the sexual harassment Clarence Thomas had engaged in when Hill worked for him at the EEOC and the US Department of Education. To a man, the Committee simply ‘didn’t get it’. Across the nation tempers flared, women were energized and far too many men joined the Senators as members of ‘ Club Clueless’.
One of the most moving lines in the film is Hill’s recollection of her mother’s proud words of support, “You know who you are.” The movie ends on a hopeful note– scenes of Hill working with young women, helping them find their own voices.
I was still lost in renewed anger as the film ended and a distinguished panel took the stage. Watching members of the Senate Committee asking whether anyone else had witnessed the exchanges, implying that Hill’s word could not be trusted, hearing Senators dismiss Thomas’s behavior as ‘only words’ was infuriating. I found myself seething as Senators harped on the fact that Hill had not immediately reported the harassment—as if doing so were the easiest thing in the world.
It all should have felt like old history. It didn’t.
Ignorance of the reality and impact of sexual harassment might not play out on televised Senate hearing in 2014, but the same lack of understanding surrounds us today. It’s in the entertainment media, in the comments from professional sports spokesmen and military commanders, in the judgments of school and university officials, in the denials of work place supervisors. After all, the response too often goes, ‘its just words, or horseplay or something the girl/woman provoked.’
Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times and author of the book Strange Justice: the Selling of Clarence Thomas, introduced the panelists: Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandies University, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, the only African American man to step up in 1991to join Hill’s advisory team, and Nan Stein, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has focused on in sexual harassment in K-12 education since 1979. Their discussion focused on public discourse around issues of gender violence—where we were in 1991 and where we are now.
We’ve made progress. Private conversations have turned into public ones, but as Hill pointed out, the past twenty-three years have been replete with brief moments of public engagement with the issue that then fade, only to be repeated when a new outrage occurs. We haven’t yet found a way to move beyond sporadic points of awareness to more sustained, effective action. Stein noted that with all forms of gendered violence increasing in severity and occurring at younger ages educators cannot hide behind the term ‘bullying’. Bullying is not illegal under federal law, but sexual harassment is. We owe it to our children to name the offense clearly in order to provide appropriate avenues of redress.
Some say, “Well, verbal harassment isn’t the same as rape or battering.” But while words may leave less physical damage, they leave lasting scars, can effect careers and stunt emotional and intellectual growth. Ignoring or belittling any form of sexual abuse provides fertile ground for the escalating gender violence all round us. More than 60 colleges and universities are under investigation for their handling of campus sexual assaults. This week the Huffington Post reported that less than 30% of students found guilty are expelled.
Hill addressed another aspect of the hearings: the extent to which progress in public discussion and understanding of acts of gender based harassment and violence has not been matched by similar progress in discussions of gender and race. No one watching the original hearings or viewing the film can forget the words with which Clarence Thomas stopped the Senate Committee in its tracks, effectively intimidating them from calling other women waiting to testify about Thomas’s behavior. Categorically denying all charges, Thomas called the hearings a ‘high tech lynching”. The Committee backed off.
In popular parlance, only black men are lynched. The Committee feared being labeled racist, but never seemed to consider their behavior toward Hill. And yet part of the reason they could bagger, doubt and ignore Anita Hill was exactly because she was black. If a young, white female lawyer had given the same testimony would the Committee have found it as easy to dismiss? I doubt it.
By changing the discourse, Thomas succeeded. The Senate confirmed his appointment 52 to 48. Pundits labeled the hearings a case of ‘he said, she said’—-something no one could unravel.
But the outrage and the conversations continued and grew. In Hill’s words, “It was the wisdom of women rather the opinions of pundits that proved to be correct.” It was not that no one had addressed sexual harassment and gender violence before the Senate hearings. Stein noted that in Minnesota in 1991 high school student Katie Lyle had finally won some measure of redress for the savage sexual harassment she had endured at her school. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence had formed in 1978. But Anita Hill’s courageous, clear words in front of some of the most powerful men in the country had been witnessed across the nation. The hearings galvanized women.Female candidates ran for office at every level; several won.
October marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1991 Senate hearings. It is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. New White House initiatives and public service ads addressing gender violence are underway. We cannot let these initiatives be simply one more ‘point of engagement’ that flares, then fades.
Charles Ogletree concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that in 1991, ‘Women stood up.” There is more work to do. It is again time for women and men to stand up and speak out. To sit silently is to condone behaviors no one should endure.