We Believed Anita Hill

In 1991, an alleged sexual harasser was appointed to the Supreme Court. Let’s not repeat history.

Joel Bleifuss

Susan J. Douglas wrote “Life in the U.S.” for the Nov. 6, 1991, issue of In These Times.

As In These Times went to press, Brett Kavanaugh faced accusations of sexual predation from three women and the future of his nomination to the Supreme Court remained in doubt. Would the charges scuttle his appointment, or would he be confirmed, as Clarence Thomas was 27 years ago?

"This kind of stance by a black woman simply doesn’t compute for many white Americans; she seemed deviant, suspect, alien to dominant notions of black female sexuality." —Susan J. Douglas

Recall that, back in October 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had tried to woo her with descriptions of women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.” He also bragged about the size of his penis and his own sexual prowess.” Yet, Thomas went on to be confirmed by the Senate on a 52 to 48 vote, with 11 Democrats joining all but two Republicans in the majority.

In the Nov. 6, 1991, issue of In These Times, Susan J. Douglas, feminist media scholar and long-time In These Times columnist, cast her critical eye on how white male Democratic members of the committee failed the 36-year-old University of Oklahoma law professor. Douglas wrote:

Ever since Dan Quayle hammered his gavel on October 15, announcing the 52-48 vote to install Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, the news media have sought to perform one of their key functions: provide symbolic closure to this contretemps, as they do with all political conflicts, and move on superficially to the next event. But this story won’t quite go away. It turns out that many women are outraged by the entire fiasco and don’t want to let the story, the topic of sexual harassment or their own anger get eclipsed by the incessant barrage of government-generated pronouncements that passes for news” in our society. …

Why did more people, if we are to believe the polls, find Thomas more credible than Hill? After all, she testified with enormous dignity, restraint and intelligence, and she is a professional woman with impeccable credentials. But the problem with Anita Hill, I’d like to propose, is that she violated certain media expectations about upwardly mobile professional women, and she defied persistent stereotypes about African-American women in particular.

Despite some positive changes in imagery, African-American women, especially in sitcoms, continue to be portrayed as more exuberant, earthy, physically expressive and sexually liberated than their white counterparts. The oh Lordy,” oooh-wee,” knee- slapping black woman of television still incorporates some of the elements of the mammy and the minstrel show, albeit in new clothes and more upscale settings. With her knowing smiles and facial expressions, her use of street talk, she suggests that African-American women are much more comfortable with, even welcoming of, sexual innuendo, discourse and activity.

Now, in stark contrast to this image, Anita Hill, through her own presentation as well as through the testimony of her collaborative witnesses, came off as prim, even prudish. She didn’t like to talk about sex, even with her close friends, and we all watched her wince as she described Thomas’ overtures. …

This kind of stance by a black woman simply doesn’t compute for many white Americans; she seemed deviant, suspect, alien to dominant notions of black female sexuality. And because of that, and of the legacy of such representations that all African American women carry with them and fight, she was testifying not just against Thomas but against a pervasive media portrait of how women like her are supposed to behave. It was hardly an even battle, and the Democrats, because of their cultural ignorance, were no help at all.

In addition, Hill cast herself, as did her close friends, as a very private person who loathes the limelight and is completely uninterested in personal publicity. In an age when fame and public renown are hysterically sought by millions of Americans, when being famous is more important than anything … the person not swept up in this desire is anomalous and open to suspicion. …

[T]he Democrats seemed to forget that anyone watches TV, or has his or her expectations about public performances shaped by the medium. As a result, Joe Biden seemed closest to emulating Mr. Rogers (“We really, really like you, you brave, sharing witnesses”) when he should have been imitating Tommy or Grace Van Owen from L.A. Law (wouldn’t that have been great?). They failed to cast Anita Hill as a courageous underdog fighting the system (which would have been easy and effective), and they failed to cast themselves as the gutsy guys from the block protecting this woman from a bunch of capricious, mean-spirited bullies. Was it because she is a woman? Because she is black? Because they are dumber than we think? Because they are still terrorized by what they perceive as the ideological hegemony of conservatism in America? Worse yet, all of the above?

In this #MeToo moment, with women of all races coming forward, another question remains to be answered: Have we learned anything since 1991 or will history repeat itself?

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

Brandon Johnson
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