I was in my junior year of high school when Anita Hill sat before a Senate Judiciary Committee of all white men and described how Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At that age, armed with parentally provided food, clothing and shelter, I didn’t grasp how daring it was.
Today I get it. Watching the video I see a 35-year-old, very proper black woman telling a mostly hostile group of calcified white senators about how the black man sitting across from her had repeatedly pressured her to go out on dates, how he’d bookended work discussions with references to big breasted porn. In a chamber allegedly governed by decorum, Hill didn’t have the luxury of jumping out of her seat when Arlen Specter (R-PA) baselessly accused her of perjury. She couldn’t suck her teeth or cackle at the ridiculous Alan Simpson (R-WY) who said, “I really am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill… I’ve got statements… saying: Watch out for this woman!” She couldn’t take her earrings off and get out the Vaseline when Clarence Thomas—Clarence Thomas!—played the victim with that infamous high-tech lynching line: “This is a circus, a national disgrace. It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves. And it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
Above edited excerpts from First Run Features documentary “Sex and Justice;” from First Run Features.
Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and one of only a handful of blacks teaching law in the country, had to have known what a master stroke that was. Imagine Clarence Thomas, the black man who had been openly hostile to the affirmative action programs that benefited him, and to his own sister whom he essentially accused of being a welfare queen, implying that Hill’s testimony was tantamount to a noose. Yet, the ever respectable Hill sat there and took it because she was there to tell the truth. And Thomas was confirmed 52 to 48, filling the seat of the late great Thurgood Marshall.
I’ve been thinking—angrily—about what happened to Hill and the effects of Thomas’s confirmation since Saturday when I attended the Hunter College conference Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later. The daylong event featured a veritable dream team of legal scholars, activists, writers, and a very serene Anita Hill herself.
Speakers including Kimberle Crenshaw, Melissa Harris-Perry, Gloria Steinem, Judith Resnik, Ai-Jen Poo, Joanne E. Smith and Emily May made clear the importance of Hill’s testimony. In short, she blew the lid off of workplace sexual harassment. Before Anita Hill, conventional wisdom said that it OK for your boss holler at you. If you weren’t down, it was up to you to fend him off or quit your job. And if you dared speak up, it had better be a slam dunk and in the moment. Otherwise, you were a woman scorned, a liar, and an attention-seeking, incompetent. While elements of this conventional wisdom certainly remain, particularly for undocumented and low-wage workers, today the public is at least vaguely aware that it is illegal for a person who holds your livelihood in their hands to coerce you into a sexual relationship or to create a hostile work environment.
As someone who has been sexually harassed at work by a man of color and officially complained about it, I’m most impressed by how Hill braved the schism between ‘black’ vs. ‘woman.’ She and her supporters—largely black feminists—tuned out the reflexive prayer circles for Thomas and kept their eyes on his legislative record, which was abysmal for everybody but the good old boys.
Lani Guinier, the first woman of color tenured at Harvard Law School who was actually friends with Thomas before he went off the deep end, recounted this dynamic on Saturday:
One of my good friends remembered getting a phone call on the first day of Anita Hill’s testimony. The person who called her did not say hello. The person who called her did not say ‘How you doing?’ The person who called her asked her a simple question: ‘Are you black, or are you a woman?’ … And the assumption obviously is that if you are black, you will support anybody who is black. And if you’re a woman, then your loyalties are going to lie elsewhere. Now of course my friend was both black and a woman. And it is that aspect of linking the issues of race, issues of gender that I found most powerful as a witness via television. [This was a] powerful culture-shifting moment … because many of us had to deal with the ambivalence and the ignorance of the question, ‘Are you black or are you a woman?’ But it was also an important culture-shifting moment because it was changing the face of power itself. Although during those hearings it appeared that the power rested with the senators, all of whom were white, all of whom were male, [they] made made us realize that all the women are not white. All the black are not men. And some of us, like Anita Hill, are very brave.”