There will be a response: What we’ve learned from Anita Hill

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“Even in our pain, we can take comfort in knowing that there will be an institutional response. There will be a community response, and that it will reverberate throughout this country.”
-Anita Hill, at YW Boston’s 150th Celebration Gala in 2016

 

In late July 2018, Christine Blasey Ford sent a confidential letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they both were in high school. On September 16, 2018, after news of the letter became widely reported, Blasey Ford came out as the author. Twenty-seven years earlier, in July 1991, Senator Ted Kennedy’s office learned about a rumor that a woman, Anita Hill, claimed to have been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. On October 7, 1991, Anita Hill held a press conference to address her accusations, which had broken to the media five days earlier.

The Senate Judiciary Committee failed Hill. Less than a week after she testified about Judge Thomas’s sexual harassment in the workplace, the Senate confirmed his appointment to the Supreme Court.

At YW Boston’s 2016 Gala, Anita Hill stated “There will be a community response, and it will reverberate throughout the country,” following Brock Turner’s sentencing and the Pulse Nightclub Shooting of 2016. She seems to speak from experience, having witnessed the response to her testimony in 1991.

At first, the response was hostile. The Senate Judiciary Committee refused to accept her testimony as evidence that Judge Thomas was not fit for the Supreme Court. On October 15, after her testimony, a New York Times/CBS Poll found that twice as many Americans polled believed Judge Thomas, as compared to Professor Hill. Polls found that support for Judge Thomas was strongest among African Americans, with 70% backing his nomination.

How, even after experiencing this, does Professor Hill remain hopeful that institutional and community responses to injustice will prevail? Justice Thomas was sworn into the Supreme Court, but the backlash to the decision shook the country and made its presence heard.

On November 17, 1991, a full page ad ran in the New York Times entitled “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.” 1,600 Black women paid for and signed the statement, declaring “As women of African descent, we express our vehement opposition to the policies represented by the placement of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.” They stated that while the media portrays all African Americans as supportive of Judge Thomas, that sentiment is not monolithic. In the ad they write, “Many have erroneously portrayed the allegations against Clarence Thomas as an issue of either gender or race. As women of African descent, we understand sexual harassment as both,” boldly proclaiming “we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman’s experience or this attack upon our collective character with protest, outrage, and resistance.” Their collective voice rang through the media’s one-note portrayal of Anita Hill’s testimony. KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, one of Professor Hill’s lawyers, later wrote about the case in her 1994 article, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” which strengthened the growing attention to the term she coined for the experience of overlapping identities: intersectionality.

The community response grew louder and grew into an institutional response. In 1991, Congress amended the Civil Rights Act “to allow sexual harassment victims to recover compensatory damages beyond back pay and entitles plaintiffs to a jury trial.” In 1992, a record number of women ran for Congress, which raised the number of women in the Senate from 2 to 5 and in the House of Representatives from 28 to 47. Newspapers declared 1992 “The Year of the Woman” in response to the elections, and credited the visibility of Professor Hill’s testimony in front an all white male committee. Professor Hill set an example, and between 1991 and 1996 the number of reported sexual harassment cases more than doubled, signaling that women were emboldened to speak up. In 1991 the Senate failed Professor Hill, the sexually harassed, and black women everywhere, but her testimony did not go unheard. It influenced institutional change that moved our country forward.

In 2018, we have seen many of these themes reemerge: women are speaking out about sexual abuse like never before and running for office in record-breaking numbers. Christine Blasey Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual violence. Similar to the response to Professor Hill, Professor Blasey Ford has received mixed support from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but her community has spoken up, too. 1,039 alums of Professor Blasey Ford’s high school, the Holton-Arms School, have signed an open letter in support of her, writing “We believe Dr. Blasey Ford and are grateful that she came forward to tell her story…Dr. Blasey Ford’s experience is all too consistent with stories we heard and lived while attending Holton. Many of us are survivors ourselves,” they state, demanding a full investigation of her case.

 

As Anita Hill stated, the community and institutional responses to tragedy “will reverberate throughout this country.” Now, we look at Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to see whether the effects of Professor Hill’s testimony will be strong enough to bring justice to Professor Blasey Ford. For our country’s sake, and for survivors everywhere, we hope we have learned our lesson to listen to women’s testimony.

On September 18, 2018, The New York Times published Anita Hill’s Op-ed “How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right.” She writes, “Today, the public expects better from our government than we got in 1991, when our representatives performed in ways that gave employers permission to mishandle workplace harassment complaints throughout the following decades.” As the woman whose testimony was mishandled, and whose character was attacked by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, she alone understands Professor Blasey Ford’s current position. To ensure that this case, which mirrors hers in many ways, is not botched, Professor Hill provided a list of basic ground rules for the Senate Judiciary Committee:

  • “Refrain from pitting the public interest in confronting sexual harassment against the need for a fair confirmation hearing.”
  • “Select a neutral investigative body with experience in sexual misconduct cases that will investigate the incident in question and present its findings to the committee.”
  • “Do not rush these hearings.”
  • “Finally, refer to Christine Blasey Ford by her name…Dr. Blasey is not simply ‘Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser.’ Dr. Blasey is a human being with a life of her own. She deserves the respect of being addressed and treated as a whole person.”

In order for change to reverberate, and for this case to be handled with the respect Professor Hill’s deserved, the Senate Judiciary Committee must listen to her ground rules. Her community rallied behind her in support, and now she does the same for Professor Blasey Ford. Justice does not occur on its own – it is the result of a strong community response. Now, let us be sure it is felt, and that progress occurs.

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