Anita Hill: There’s still a disconnect on gender bias

08/31/2014 7:00 PM

08/29/2014 7:17 PM

Anita Hill.

Say the name, and the response will be telling, depending on the age and political leanings of the listener.

Hill’s grueling 1991 testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a turning point in American politics — and a sometimes surreal one, at that.

She had been called to testify on Thomas’ character, based on a private interview she had given to the FBI. To the committee and a shocked national television audience, she detailed the ways Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill recounted the range of verbal vulgarities that Thomas subjected her to. She was asked to restate explicit testimony about his desire for large-breasted women and his comments on pornography, including bestiality.

If the committee had taken Hill at her word, there was no way the Senate could find Thomas fit for the Supreme Court. The committee didn’t pay her that courtesy. Instead, America watched as the all-male, all-white panel humiliated Hill, asking her if she was a “scorned” woman or had a “martyr” complex. (Because, you know, she couldn’t possibly be telling the truth about Thomas.)

The hearings touched off a new round of the culture wars — and inspired record numbers of women to run for Congress. In the 1992 elections (dubbed the “Year of the Woman”), four women were returned to the Senate and their number in the House jumped from 28 to 47.

A documentary of those days, Anita, Speaking Truth to Power, came out in the spring, and Hill has been packing auditoriums and theaters. In Kansas City recently, the public library was so overwhelmed that a larger venue had to be found for a Q-and-A. She received a standing ovation for just mounting the stage.

But Hill’s audiences are overwhelmingly female and over 40. Most “millennials,” even otherwise informed ones, draw a blank on her name. And if they do know of her, some are dismissive. She’s that lady who complained about workplace comments that pale in comparison to the seemingly unending barrage of bad behavior seen today in politics.

In fact, Hill said she was reluctant to participate in the documentary. But her mind was swayed in part by 2012 Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comment about how in a “legitimate rape” a woman’s body naturally shuts down a potential pregnancy. She also continues to be concerned about sexual harassment.

As Hill notes, in her first book, it wasn’t until 1986 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that sexual harassment was sexual discrimination. Considering that, what went down when Hill was subpoenaed to appear before Congress shouldn’t have been all that shocking.

“The men on the Senate Judiciary Committee were more able to identify with him and his position in the workplace than they were able to identify with me and mine,” Hill told me in a phone interview.

She worries about what sort of disconnects remain today.

Thomas denied Hill’s allegations, calling the hearings a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

Thomas counted on the panel of white senators to avoid wading into the thicket of racist stereotypes that have long been thrown at black men, portraying them as oversexed thugs.

He got what he wanted, an end to the hearings. More female witnesses were ready to testify and corroborate Hill’s testimony with their own dealings with Thomas as an employer, but were never called.

Thomas was confirmed by a slim margin of 52-48.

And Hill? “I was accused of a racial wrong for complaining,” she said.

Today, Hill is a law professor at Brandeis University. Thomas is the ultra-conservative jurist, rarely asking a question during oral arguments

“There is a question, I think, to what extent are we going to hold people accountable for their behavior? What are the limits of our willingness to hold people accountable?” Hill said. “It’s one thing to say that it is unacceptable. It’s another thing to say we are going to do something when it exists.”

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.

©2014 The Kansas

City Star

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