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.

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