I’ve been thinking a lot about Anita Hill.
Especially after witnessing this exchange this past weekend:
5 year old boy to a 7 year old girl: “You’re stupid. Suck my cock.”
(He grabs at her vaginal area.)
The girl quietly says “Stop,” but isn’t sure what is going on.
The scene haunts me, and millions of other individuals across the gender spectrum, as it replays over and over in our society. I share this to remind us how much more work needs to be done.
Here’s what gives me hope. My college students, like many, are activated around the larger context of harassment on campus. They are talking, discussing, holding protests, and claiming their rights.
Sadly, by week one in college most of my first-year students can identify a harassment culture. They have examples to share: instances of harassment based on sex, gender identity and expression, looks, racial and ethnic identity, and class identity. This is always terribly discouraging.
For years I have shown my students clips of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearing to help them to understand how far we have come. I talk about being a college student when there was barely any language to describe that hostile climate. And were there school policies addressing stalking, sexual assault, and online bullying? I doubt it. But today, those policies exist. Today, Title IX is helping us to achieve equity in college environments across the board.
My students are always unusually fixated, watching the Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings of 1991, when Anita Hill is disemboweled before the public for her claims of sexual harassment. Fourteen white senators staring her down. Senators like Arlen Specter ask over and over about discussions of penis size, porn, and pubic hairs, in what appears to be an attempt to humiliate and break her down. It is as if she is on trial. And yet, she calmly perseveres. In the process, she teaches senators across the political spectrum and the public at large what constitutes hostile climate in the workplace, and what constitutes sexual harassment in a time of great ignorance and denial.
Even though this all occurred before my students were born, they are always grateful to know, understand, and experience this piece of history. Perhaps they see themselves in Anita Hill. They certainly see a brave woman who catalyzed social awareness about sexual violence and gender inequality. And they are standing on the shoulders of Anita Hill, and other reformers like her, including ), Fanny Lou Hamer (involuntary sterilization), Susan Brownmiller and Andrea Dworkin (rape culture), Anne Koedt, Shere Hite, and Barbara Seaman (women’s right to pleasure) and many other brave women who have publicly named sexual violence in their lives and society.
This year, a long-anticipated documentary about Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power, is available. It details the period before the trial, the trial itself, and the aftermath, including the approximately 25,000 letters received by Hill, a mix of death threats and loving support. We learn about her family (she is the youngest of 13 siblings), and her mother’s influence in her life. We also meet many of the people who have supported Hill over the years, including a group of women politicians, former colleagues, and family. At the end of the film Hill is featured working with the younger generation, inspired by their energy and activism related to harassment culture. Most importantly, Anita helps us to reflect on how those hearings changed her life, and specifically how the combination of race and gender shaped her life, and changed the dynamics in DC and beyond.
Yesterday I screened this film for my class, and once again the students were transfixed. Afterwards, they talked about interviewing their moms, and their surprise in learning that many of their moms have experienced harassment in the workplace. In more than a few cases, these mothers experienced heightened misogyny at work, during and after the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas trial, a wrinkle that the film does not address.
Throughout the trial, Anita Hill is asked why didn’t she report these incidents. Today, students are also asked the same thing. Reporting is not an easy thing to do, and while reporting rates have gone up in recent years, the numbers as a whole are way too low to reflect the troubling reality on our campuses. It doesn’t seem fair to put full responsibility on the survivors, rather than the perpetrators. But how else do we hold people accountable for their actions? Anita Hill felt she had a responsibility to speak the truth.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go with this harassment culture, especially when it starts at age 5. But thank you Anita Hill, for telling the truth, and for paving the way. Thank you, Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, who asks us all to “carry the weight” on October 29th.
Thank you to everyone who continues to be activated around sexual harassment. Let’s continue to break through these silences and push towards equality.