EXCLUSIVE: Anita Hill on Clarence Thomas' delusions: "What you are calling 'high-tech lynching' is not how lynching worked historically"

Since the hearing women have come forward to report sexual assault and harassment. For Hill, that's "monumental"

Published February 9, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 11, 1991.    (AP/Greg Gibson)
Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 11, 1991. (AP/Greg Gibson)

At a recent event at Stanford, University of Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon noted that the testimony of Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 “set off a cascade of equality aspiration.”  This is highly significant praise, coming from the author of the 1979 landmark book "Sexual Harassment of Working Women," which itself brought the very concept of sexual harassment into the public consciousness, precisely as a pervasive social problem.  As recent events have shown, we are now coming to understand just how pervasive sexual harassment and sexual assault are—not just in the workplace, but also at colleges and universities and just about any social space.

Three things came out most forcefully during two days in October at Stanford, when academics, students and members of the community at large gathered to listen to Anita Hill’s keynote, the remarks of documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock, who screened her recently released "Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power," and several other speakers, including Annie Clark, co-founder of End Rape on Campus, and Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of KnowYourIX.

First of all, there was the sense that, while we now have developed a vocabulary with which to discuss these topics, we still have a long way to go in terms of bringing about the kinds of change necessary to effectively diminish the problems of sexual harassment and assault.  Second, that a younger generation of activists have brought forth a new awareness of the depth and breadth of this problem.  And third, a point made repeatedly, was an appreciation of the courage, creativity and energy one finds in this struggle, which links together generations and a diverse set of participants.

Hill said one of the most notable things today is the willingness to make things public.  One should acknowledge that Hill herself is largely responsible for this.  Appearing at the age of 35 before the Judiciary Committee at the confirmation hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, she presented an image of someone who confidently and assuredly stood before that collection of 18 white males and, indeed, spoke truth to power.

She also said that not only students, but also parents should be activists. With statistics showing that one in five women on college campuses will be the victim of sexual assault, she urged parents to press colleges and universities to be transparent, and to release data on campus safety with regard to this issue.  She said emphatically that any college administrator who truly wished to bring about change had to “think boldly.”  Hill saw all this as part of a larger project to bring legal consciousness into public consciousness: What are our rights and how can we insist they be recognized and protected, given the still persistent sexism and racism that exist in society?  Hill then spoke of the need for women to be present not only as witnesses, but also as decision-makers, something that comes out forcefully in the interview below.

One of the key threads running through her comments was her appreciation of the fact that the scholarship that has arisen surrounding her Senate testimony has “carved out a safe space for our voices to come forward.”  Part of her current research centers on discovering the “intellectual footprint” of the hearings, their “lasting illumination.”  She is going through the more than 25,000 letters she has received, to reflect on the world then and now, and how the discussion on sexual harassment has shifted.

Hill ended her talk by stressing the importance of women telling their stories in an unmediated fashion, outside the frame of received opinion.  What follows is an interview with Professor Hill undertaken near the end of her visit.  I was interested particularly in her reflections on the 1991 hearings, her sense of their import, and her take on today’s situation.  What has changed, what hasn’t and how can we best move forward?

What's it like watching Freida's film in 2014?  What things really jump out at you the most?

Well, I think what actually jumps out is the sense of how ill-informed the Senate was as a committee that was there to provide information to the public, that was there to take care of the interest of the populace, but they were doing so without the benefit of a real understanding of the issue that they were addressing. And I think the other thing, the parallel thing, that stood out to me was when you listened to women being interviewed there's a sense of helplessness, this instinctive knowledge that what was happening was not right, that the Senate wasn't getting it right, but that there was nothing that they could do.

Because in a sense, we really hadn't developed the social consciousness of the problem, and we hadn't developed a vocabulary to tell people about why it was important for them to understand the issue of harassment in this setting, where you're talking about someone who is going to be able to sit on the highest court in the country in a lifetime position.  And so there was this sense of helplessness that you’ll see in the film.  You'll see and feel some desperation.

And then, finally, I think the thing that stands out is the relationship between the issue of sexual harassment and other forms of power and trust abuse and violence. And we now think of sexual harassment and sexual assault together, especially on college campuses because the law that governs sexual harassment also governs sexual assault.

At the time people didn't quite understand that sexual harassment and sexual assault are not two distinct categories of behavior.  And that stands out in the film; it was portrayed as this unique experience that didn't have any relevance to any other experiences.  Now we have a much better understanding, but at the same time we don't have the level of knowledge that assures that the reaction today is going to be dramatically different.

That's exactly where I was going.  I remember watching the testimony and feeling like this is a train wreck that you're watching.  There was this sense of inevitability that you were saying things and they were not hearing anything.  And you could tell that by the follow-ups.

Right, and the repetitiveness of the questions.

Yes, exactly, this fixation on getting the answer they wanted, no matter what.

They were asking the same questions over and over, and never quite fully understanding the answer. One of the questions they kept asking was, “Why didn't you report it earlier?”  And the amazing thing was, ironically, there was clear evidence of why.  The answer to the question was obvious to everyone from their behavior –– their behavior showed why people don't report.

And so, I think, that was because the committee was just so uninformed about the issue and willfully uninformed.  Because there were experts waiting and making themselves available to inform the committee but they were not listened to and they certainly weren't called upon to testify.

What you said earlier--that today we have a vocabulary, we have instruments, but that you are not sure that the outcome would be different today--can you talk a little bit more about what we have now, this familiarity with the issue of sexual harassment, and yet how there is still this persistent denial or evasion of the issue even though we have the vocabulary?

I think it's really frightening, especially when we look at what's going on on campuses today.  That we really had to get to the point where there were student activists and faculty activism before people stood up and started paying attention.

I recently reread a letter that I got from a college minister in 1991, talking about having to respond to victims on his campus and counseling victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault--students, faculty and staff.  Now this was in 1991.  In 1991, for some, the campus minister was the only place to go for help.  Campus ministries didn't have any resources, they didn't have the power to deal with the issues, the structures weren't in place.  But it's clear evidence that there were these informal ways that people were dealing with them, either going to counseling services or ministers.

And the administration wasn't paying attention, I suppose for any number of reasons.  Cases of assault and harassment were being addressed informally, but there were no checks or standards for dealing with these cases.  I don't know if we could ever go back and discover how many people got lost because of that.  But I suspect that there were countless numbers of individuals whose situations went unaddressed.

Right. Because they felt that the problem could be handled with preexisting counseling or other sort of formulas without understanding the specificity.

Despite the 1980 decision in Alexander v. Yale, which declared that universities had a duty to establish sexual harassment complaint processes,  administrators were not looking at the problem as an educational issue or a violation of the right to equal education under Title IX. To the extent that administrators recognized the existence of the problem, they looked at it as a counseling problem or an individual health problem.  This puts all of the burden on the victim and keeps the administrator from having to deal with the people who were the assailants.

So what do you think are the biggest issues facing young women today?

I would say the issues are really pretty much the same today, but the tendency toward violence, that's the most pressing issue I think.

And the violence occurs in any number of ways.  So it can be described as harassment, some of it is beatings, some of it is rape.  It's the violence that occurs in their lives, in the workplaces, in many instances, and on the streets.  And we're just now starting to address those issues as we are coming to the realization that these behaviors are part of the college and university campus experience

It occurs from people who they know and sometimes from strangers. I think that kind of violence and trauma then becomes a part of everyday life that women have to strategically negotiate and navigate their way around. This is one of the biggest challenges.

That's one of the things that strikes me--that you don't really have a free society.  You have a society in which one-half, at least, is living in fear.

Here at Stanford our breadth requirements are called “Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing.”  I'm the chair of the governance board this year. I asked my colleagues, “Why don't we have a mandatory course on sexual violence?”  After all, it's a way of thinking about how we live as a community and a way of doing things.  And many of my colleagues say, “Well, students don't like requirements!”  My reply is that we insist people get driver's licenses before we let them get in cars and use the public thoroughfares.  I mean, if they're living in the community they should know these issues, and how to act.

And it strikes me also that, as you say, the violence occurs in so many different ways.  Even talking with well-meaning administrators, these myths kick in.  For example, some say, “Well, they had a preexisting relationship so there might've been a false signal there,” and “Well, you must feel sorry for the guy too because now everybody knows who it was.”

These myths reflect an ambivalence/indifference to gendered violence and sexual misconduct and a resistance to addressing them.  Which is the same kind of thing that was going on in 1991.  Because as an African-American I was criticized because it was another African-American I was saying did these things.  And there were people who said even if it did happen, and I believe it did, you should never have told because now you have brought shame onto this African --

Well, the whole “high-tech lynching” thing, it was just so horrible.

Yes.  Well, it was somewhat calculated.  And that's I think why we'd react to it.  But what's important for us to go back and think about is that people ask all the time, “Would things have been different had there been more women in the Senate on the Judiciary Committee?”

I'm not sure the outcome would've necessarily been different but the conversation would've been different.

That's interesting.

I think that the level of incredulity that they were expressing—“Oh, this could never happen.” They were painting the behavior as something that was so rare, so unusual.

But I think that any woman who might've found herself in the Senate at that point in her career would've been able to tell them stories about their own experience.  That if they were candid and able to share, could've changed the conversation and could've changed the way the questions were phrased.

I'm also thinking of just men who have daughters, right?

Right, right.

And talk to them.  I mean, just having –

Conversations with family members.  But to have had women in leadership in that conversation, I think, could've changed the approach that was taken during the hearing.

The other thing that I think is important for us to think about, and we don't always talk about this, is the racial element.  We talk about the “high-tech lynching” and we talk about diversity in leadership and representation and the fact that there weren't women who were in the room.  But we don't talk so much about the fact that there was no ethnic diversity. The Senate was actually cowed by the position he was taking.

Yes, that was very powerful.

Yes, very powerful.  And if there had been others who would've been able to say, what you are calling “high-tech lynching” is not how lynching worked historically, and it's not how it works today.

The people who are aligned with power are not the people who are lynched, they're the ones who are spared.  It's the people who are challenging who are lynched.  You know, as they say in the film, how much more powerful could you [Clarence Thomas] be--you're aligned with the president of the United States!

And so that racial conversation could have changed.  And then to put another layer on that--imagine had there been women of color in both of those conversations to say, “Well, people are not lynched because of our stories or because of what happens to us and what we talk about.  That's just not the nature of a lynching. And our experiences in communities of color have not been explained and exposed and really investigated and taken seriously historically.  And you are, once again, replicating what our historical experience is.”

So all of those conversations would have, I think, been enhanced by a more representative body in the U.S. Senate.  We've made some headway in terms of gender representation, but the ethnic representation has hardly shown on the radar.

Well, to end on an up-note, what gives you optimism?

Well, I can tell you that.  In 1991, we had for so many women a disappointing outcome, we had a disappointing experience, we had a frightening experience.  I mean, women were really fearful of what had happened to me during that Senate hearing.

Nevertheless, they went forward in record numbers with their own complaints of sexual harassment and assault, and started filing complaints in record numbers.  Just the idea that they knew now that the level of consciousness had been raised to that point allowed them to overcome their fears of bad treatment, and they decided that they must come forward.

I think that's really monumental.  I think the kinds of conversations that did go on between family member, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, as well as among friends and work colleagues -- I've heard about them -- has been a shift in the fact that women were able to talk about episodes in their lives, for the first time in their lives, with their family members. that gives me hope.  And the fact that for so many women that was monumental and was important and liberating, and that allows us to move to another level of the conversation.

And student activism now is part of that momentum.

I think there are so many things that I see that are building on those experiences from 1991.  These are daughters and granddaughters of those women who finally told the truth about their experiences.  And I see these older women in turn supporting today’s student activists.

I think that there are some things that have happened on social media.  I do not believe that the #yesallwomen could have occurred had we not given permission to talk about what it's really like to be a woman and to have to deal with the contemptuousness, with the discrimination and the antagonism and the animus that women experience.

And last, I'll say I believe that the story of Jonathan Martin and the Miami Dolphins locker room really was possible because we started, women started, telling their stories about what it means to be abused and disempowered.  And it enabled Jonathan Martin to talk from a point of view of a man about what it means.

So all of this gives me hope. I also get hope and energy from just being in conversations, conversations about how we can do better and why we must do better.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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