Web Only / Features » October 17, 2011
Twenty Years Ago, Today
Anita Hill’s testimony sparked the feminist climate of the 1990s. Now it’s time to talk about women and class.
Speaking about sexual harassment in public sparked one decade’s worth of substantial progress. These days, if you want to get women moving, you point out the threat to their bank accounts.
In October 1991, Professor Anita Hill testified before an all-male Senate panel that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when she had worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Everyone I knew, or at least everyone’s mother, was riveted by her testimony. Hill was soft-spoken, polite and reticent about explicit details; in her testimony, she often avoided words like “breasts” and “penis,” preferring the phrase “physical characteristics.” Yet a room full of extremely powerful men was unable to intimidate her out of her story, despite hours of leading questions.
“Now, in trying to determine whether you are telling falsehoods, or not, I’ve got to determine what your motivation might be. Are you a scorned woman?” Senator Howell Heflin asked.
Hill said “no” so softly her microphone barely picked it up. Heflin continued his line of questioning: “Are you a zealot civil rights believer?” No. “Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?” No. “Do you have a martyr complex?”
Anita Hill–who received bomb threats for testifying, endured both a campaign to have her fired from the University of Oklahoma School of Law, and, when that didn’t work, a campaign to have the law school itself shut down–laughed out loud. And said “no.”
She lost. Thomas, of course, became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice; she saw a poll, she says, that indicated that “70 percent of the population thought I had perjured myself.” But in the following years, the number of sexual harassment cases skyrocketed. In 1991, 6,883 people were willing to file claims with the EEOC. In 1998, the number was 15,618. Maybe they were inspired by Hill’s bravery. Or maybe it was just that, due to Hill’s allegations, the vast majority of Americans now had reason to know what “sexual harassment” actually was.
“Do you see, coming out of this, that you can be a hero in the civil rights movement?” Senator Heflin asked that day.
It wasn’t just sexual harassment. Anita Hill’s testimony substantially created the feminist climate of the 1990s–a climate that, in comparison to 2011, looks nearly idyllic.
In 1992, the year after Hill testified, a record number of women politicians were elected to office and the country elected a president with an openly feminist wife. That year, Newsweek ran a feature about a popular young feminist movement called Riot Grrrl (“all girls get harassed,” one sentence read); one of its anthemic songs was about sexual abuse, and its chorus was a woman screaming “suck my left one.” (Lest you doubt Hill’s connection, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is widely considered an inspiration of that movement; in 1992, Sonic Youth released a song with the lines “I believe Anita Hill / that judge will rot in hell.”). The year before saw pop singer Tori Amos release a song about her own rape, “Me and a Gun”; in 1994, she co-founded RAINN, still the most prominent network for aiding survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
After Hill, women were speaking–not just at feminist protests, but on MTV, in sitcoms, in handmade zines–about being sexually victimized. It got results. In 1993, North Carolina became the last state in the nation to criminalize marital rape. “Date rape” entered the common vocabulary of sexual assault.
And then, in 1998, after years of allegations–including one well-publicized sexual harassment case–President Clinton was impeached for misrepresenting his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Even if you didn’t support the impeachment, it was clear that what powerful men did with their less powerful female subordinates now mattered. It was no longer an inconsequential “civil rights” matter. It could be used–consciously, and by conservatives–to bring an entire country to a screeching halt.
Today’s powder keg
2012 looks less friendly than 1992. Last year, Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, was accused of sexually assaulting two Swedish women; a key part of his media defense consisted of blaming feminism. (“Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?” Heflin, a Southern Democrat, asked. “I fell into a hornet’s nest of revolutionary feminism,” Assange, a radical progressive, claimed.)
This year, HR3–a bill cutting financial aid to people in need of abortions (at least language redefining rape and incest exemptions to include only “forcible” rapes was dropped before passage)–passed the House, as did HR358, a bill that would allow doctors to let pregnant people die rather than give them medically necessary abortions. Topeka, Kansas, just decriminalized domestic violence.
And then there’s the DSK affair: This year, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, widely believed to be on track to becoming the next president of France, was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a maid at the hotel where he’d been staying; after a prolonged campaign to discredit Diallo, including unsubstantiated charges that she was a prostitute, the charges were dropped.
The whole female situation is a powder keg. And wealthy, powerful men just keep lighting matches. The question is not if we will have another Anita Hill, but who she will be.
Still speaking truth
Of course, Anita Hill herself never really left. When I saw her this Saturday, she was on stage at a Hunter College conference entitled “Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later.” She looked good; in fact, she looked much the same as she had 20 years ago. Same broad smile–you saw it more often, obviously–same strong posture, same chin held high. And when she spoke, she was still impossible to see as weak, as damaged, as a “victim” in any of the derogatory senses with which people still use that word.
She began by listing people who had supported her–“so many people came together”–and only briefly mentioned the bomb threats. She spoke about her new book, Reimagining Equality; she spoke about how she had “let go” of the idea that her life could ever return to normal; she spoke about needing to find “a way for us to think and talk about race that is not so male-dominated,” and “a conversation about gender that is not racialized.” Despite being at the center of an event dedicated to what she had once called the most difficult experience of her life, she was resolutely generous and positive throughout.
At one point, a girl in the audience stood up, weeping, and asked Hill how to deal with fear.
“I think you’ve dealt with fear,” Anita Hill replied.
It wasn’t hard to imagine this woman overturning the world.
But it’s too easy to turn Hill into a saint, a hero, a “martyr” to the greater cause of feminist progress; too easy to appropriate her legacy to suit one’s own idea of feminism. It’s been happening for 20 years.
Understandably, pioneering sexual harassment scholar Catharine MacKinnon spoke at the conference; less understandably, she expressed disappointment, not for the first time, that Thomas was not questioned about his pornography use. MacKinnon’s controversial belief that pornography is both a form of violence against women and a cause of it – which seems, to many, not to recognize a certain distinction between someone masturbating to pornography, and someone giving graphic, unwelcome descriptions of pornography to an employee, as Hill said Thomas had done–still represents one take on the Hill case. Outside the auditorium, people were handing out leaflets about “ending pornography.”
Gloria Steinem took the opportunity to pitch the idea that “we might re-think our definition of the second wave as mostly white and middle-class;” fair enough, but on a day full of celebrated women of color, Steinem received the only standing ovation given to anyone other than Hill, and after her speech, many people left. Pat Mitchell of the Paley Center for Media spoke about women newscasters “hired on the size of their busts rather than the size of their brains,” and wearing “low-cut blouses,” before introducing a panel including Melissa Harris-Perry, who had recently been called “an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV” by the left-wing columnist Gene Lyons. Which, if nothing else, shows that the sexualized degradation of women in the workplace still exists, and does not always look like conservative men talking about Coke cans.
‘Bigger problems than gender inequality’?
Whatever the next feminist moment looks like, it won’t look like what’s come before. It probably won’t even look like what my own 90s-nostalgic generation is used to. Outside the conference, I asked Tori, a volunteer, how the Hill case had affected her life; she pointed out that she had been three years old when it happened and that her “most conscious thoughts of politics were post 9/11.” The attacks that day, she explained, had occurred when she was in seventh grade. She also mentioned the “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr.
“Some people are very much in this gender equality thing,” she said, “and some people are like, okay, we’ve got bigger problems than gender inequality.” She added that this was not her view. But any movement against gender inequality in 2011 will have to deal with this new ground.
It was immediately apparent what would happen if it didn’t. Many discussions at the “Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth” conference focused on the intersection of race and gender; on how Hill was called a race traitor or accused of “acting white” for rejecting Thomas, or how many black women felt pressured to choose between being black and being female. Conversation inevitably turned to SlutWalk; at the New York SlutWalk, a white woman had been photographed carrying a sign that said “Woman Is The N***er of the World,” and many white feminists had defended her. When Mitchell asked whether SlutWalk was “a step forward or a step back,” an audience member shouted “a step back!” before the panelists on stage could answer. It’s not just that a current feminist movement has to reflect diversity and complexity in order to be useful; it’s that it will not obtain if it doesn’t.
For that precise reason, I wish I’d heard more from Ai-Jen Poo, who spoke about the fact that domestic workers are still not granted common labor protections, including protections against discrimination and harassment, in 49 states–or from Hill herself, who spoke about how the housing crisis had predominantly affected women. These weren’t the most sensational points made that day, but they seemed most likely to illuminate a way for feminist protest to remain central to our current political reality.
As class protest takes off (at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement), it is time to talk about women and class. It is time to talk about how violence against women causes poverty or is exacerbated by it; how bills like HR3 specifically target poor women; how freely chosen sex work differs from trafficking and poverty-driven stop-gaps; how race and class are linked in America; about how sexual harassment, itself, is made possible by the fact that very few people can afford to choose between being unsafe and being unemployed. Speaking about sexual harassment in public sparked one decade’s worth of substantial progress. These days, if you want to get women moving, you point out the threat to their bank accounts.
Twenty years after taking center stage on Capitol Hill, Anita Hill is at the forefront of these issues. She talks about them and educates people about them. She addresses them with a complexity, an intelligence and a grace that are altogether formidable. Of course, this is much less surprising than all the developments of the last two decades.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times staff writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady