Anita Hill talks about what's changed, and what's stayed the same, in a 30 year journey to end gender violence
It's been 30 years since Anita Hill testified before an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee, a committee led by then-Sen. Joe Biden. She told the committee that her boss, Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her. It was a landmark moment that inspired women to come forward with their stories, to file complaints and even to run for office. Hill became a leading figure in the fight for women's rights and against gender-based violence.
But what has happened in the decades since? Has real change occurred? Anita Hill is now a professor of social policy, law and women's and gender studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Hill's latest book is "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence." In it, she draws on her decades as a teacher and a legal scholar to explore the sweeping impact of gender-based violence, why it persists and what we can do to protect future generations. She discussed the book on River to River.
This interview includes references to sexual violence that some may find disturbing. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kieffer: “Start off by telling us, please, what's in this book and why you felt the need to write it now?”
Hill: “Over the past 30 years, I have heard from thousands of people and, initially, maybe most of the emails, letters, messages and phone calls that I was getting were from people, women, who had suffered from sexual harassment. But very quickly that changed. Even very shortly after I gave my testimony and returned back to Oklahoma, I got a phone call from an individual who opened a conversation by saying I had opened a whole can of worms. I didn't know what he meant, but he went on to explain that he had been an incest survivor. The hearings reminded him of his family's reaction when he had attempted to disclose the abuse that he had experienced and the name of the person, who is a family member, who was abusing him. That stuck with me, and I didn't quite know what he meant by a whole can of worms, but eventually I came to understand that the problem was bigger than sexual harassment: it included his incest experience. It includes intimate partner violence. It includes sexual assault, it includes rape, and it's experienced by people of all ages. Young people in high school, in elementary schools, are experiencing sexual assault and bullying, bullying tied to their gender expression or gender identity, or sexual identity and sexual harassment. So all of the above, including sexual harassment, is what I wrote the book about, because when you put them all together and you see the connections between, not only the behaviors, but also the cultural reactions to them, and the processes that we have to go through to get some accountability, what you see is that we're dealing with one huge problem. There's no real separating, and there's no way that we can resolve one without thinking about and considering all of the others.”
"When you put them all together and you see the connections between, not only the behaviors, but also the cultural reactions to them, and the processes that we have to go through to get some accountability, what you see is that we're dealing with one huge problem."
“So the bigger picture is that this moves away from the attitude that there 'are bad apples' that make remarks, that assault, that make inappropriate sexual references and so forth. What you're saying here is that it includes all of us? Not just the victims and the perpetrators.”
“Yeah, absolutely. And certainly, we want to center and honor the experiences of victims and survivors and the harm done to them. But the harm extends well beyond the direct victims. The harm extends to their friends, their families, the people who witness bad behavior in a workplace or who experience it on a college campus community — not directly, but they know of people. There's a certain kind of fear that occurs because they wonder if they're going to be the next victim. It affects people in the workforce, not necessarily just those who are direct victims. It damages our institutions. For example, productivity in the workforce gets lost because of sexual harassment and misconduct in that workforce. So there are all kinds of ways that we need to think about the problem. Currently, my tendency is to think of it as a personal problem, a sort of 'a few bad apples,' and then we personalize the harm to individuals when it is an enormous problem that is impacting all of us.”
"What we have now is this greater awareness, but the outcomes are still unsatisfactory, and that's because we still hold on to the cultural denial of the harm of gender-based violence,"
“You mentioned you and your team of students, I believe, interviewed a whole host of people. You say when it comes to ending violence and the inequality that it spawns, you say 'I am no longer patient.' What has changed? When did you lose patience and why?”
“Well, one has to do with the fact that I'm 30 years older, and I don't know how much longer I'm going to be on the Earth and able to deal with these issues and address them. So that's a personal position that I feel that I'm in right now, losing patience.
“But I think I've lost patience with the country. We have increased awareness, tremendously. A new generation — millennials — understand the problem and are more likely to speak out against it. Look at all of the college campus protests that are going now against sexual assault. They have an awareness that's different from ours. They're not saying it's a few bad apples. They're saying that fraternities, in particular, are institutions that are harboring the behavior and allowing it. What we have now is this greater awareness, but the outcomes are still unsatisfactory, and that's because we still hold on to the cultural denial of the harm of gender-based violence. We tell survivors and victims that the problem isn't so bad or it could be worse, or maybe you shouldn't complain about it, don't make a fuss about it. We tell victims very often that, well, 'maybe it was your fault because you were in the wrong location,' or 'because you said something that made them think that you were interested in that.' And so we still have that tendency to, in some ways, dismiss or deny or to blame victims culturally, and that's the kind of behavior that we need to check individually.
"We, as a culture, encourage deference to people in power. We encourage people to believe that powerful men tell the truth about these experiences, and then we discourage victims from coming forward"
“Finally, we need to check and change our processes. You know, I start the book discussing the process of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 and in 2018. Unfortunately, that has become a national example of a flawed process. Until we start to look at all of our institutions and evaluate the process and the likelihood that people will be able to, willing to, approach them and become involved, and are likely to get some kind of reckoning through a process - until we do that, those two things, we are not going to end the problem of gender violence, and those processes extend into our criminal justice system. The failures extend there, as well as the civil system. And we have an example of it that came out today, in terms of the process that the women’s soccer players have had to deal with in trying to come forward in the case of a coach that was harassing and abusing women.”
“Sue, a member of our audience, says 'If I could speak to her,' [to Professor Hill], she says, 'I would apologize for not being outraged on her behalf as the hearing took place. I didn't understand sexual harassment and couldn't believe that dignified-looking man would do such a thing. Anita Hill's courage and dignity got us started on an important journey, one that I was too ignorant to understand at the time. Thank you, Anita.' What's your reaction to that?”
“Well, I am very appreciative of people like Sue, who are very candid about what happened and what went wrong in 1991. But in some ways, I don't necessarily blame Sue, because we, as a culture, encourage deference to people in power. We encourage people to believe that powerful men tell the truth about these experiences, and then we discourage victims from coming forward, and we discourage people from believing women and other people who are vulnerable. So I think that Sue's reaction is something that is very much common, that came out of 1991. And I have heard people say directly 'I, as a woman, feel very guilty because I didn't do more. I didn't make more of a fuss about this.' But fortunately, some people did. And the number of complaints increased, number of complaints filed with the EEOC, a federal agency in charge of receiving complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, those increased. The activism increased around the issue.
“Right now, what I want to do is to make sure that we bring all of these behaviors to the table, to the conversation. Not that every one of the behaviors is the same and can be cured in the same way, but that they are interrelated. Most often, we are talking about violence that women experience, but also violence that that happens because of all the other vulnerabilities, including gender identity and sexual identity, which gets exacerbated by race and ethnicity. We've got a lot to get our arms around, in terms of this problem.”
"Very often it's about power, and we use different factors to leverage against individuals, to make them more vulnerable and make them less powerful. And gender is one of those factors, as well as race and racism is one of those factors."
“Talk about the point you just mentioned — race. You write that women of color experience sexual harassment at higher rates than white women. Sexual harassment includes racist, as well as sexual, language, behaviors and innuendo. What is the connection there?”
“Well, it really is just the human connection. What happens is that harassing behavior is often based in a kind of animus and bias. It's not what we typically think of as someone who's a normal — romantic interest just gets exaggerated. Very often it's about power, and we use different factors to leverage against individuals, to make them more vulnerable and make them less powerful. Gender is one of those factors, as well as race and racism is one of those factors. So basically, you have misogyny, and then layered on top of that, in the lives of women of color, is racism. Not only are they more likely to experience harassment, but they are less likely to be taken seriously when they complain about harassment. There's a piece in the New York Times this weekend that Kimberly Crenshaw wrote about the R. Kelly conviction and why it took 30 years to actually get a conviction, when there had been complaints about his having sex with a 13-year-old years before. She chalks it up to the fact that all of his accusers were Black women, and she even draws on quotes from people who say, basically, they didn't believe the women because they didn't think that they were credible, they didn't like the way they dressed, they didn't like the way they talked. Those kinds of racist ideas just get layered on top of the misogyny that is at the root of gender violence.”
"As an educator, I want to be able to draw on all of the facts and the research and the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years, to teach and educate our students and to prepare them for the world that is out there"
“Earlier this year, our governor, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, signed a law limiting the ways that teachers can discuss race and gender. The law bans teaching certain concepts, such as that the U.S. or Iowa is systemically racist. Other states, I'm sure you're aware, have enacted similar laws. What are your thoughts about these new laws? That push back?”
“Well, I think that the pushback is actually harmful. I think that any educator will tell you that we all benefit from taking a clear look at the facts of our history and being able to put together the information and reach conclusions about whether or not something is endemic or systemic. I think denying that something like racism or gender violence is systemic flies in the face of the facts. As an educator, I want to be able to draw on all of the facts and the research and the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years to teach and educate our students and to prepare them for the world that is out there, that is made up of different people from different races, with different ethnicities and different backgrounds and different genders and different experiences.”
“To follow up on that comment on the politicization of this sort of violence, with a look at both the campaigns to end this violence but also the backlash, the pushback against those efforts, how do you understand it, especially the pushback?”
“Well, I understand it's in part the culture that we've grown up with — to accept bad behavior or to minimize it. And therefore, we don't want to rock the boat or make trouble. Anyone who raises a claim then gets immediate resistance in so many circumstances. So I understand the pushback is based on our cultural beliefs and the stories we have been told and have told ourselves for years. But I want to tell a different story, and that's what “Believing,” does: it tells a different story. It reveals the facts. I think that is maybe the best contribution, so that people can hear the stories, see the experiences, see the harm that it's causing, so that maybe, if we get all the facts and we get the information in it, we humanize it through the account, that we will be able to divert some of that pushback and get more people to recognize that this is a problem that we're passing along from generation to generation that is not going to cure itself, and that we owe it to ourselves and our children and grandchildren to address it.”
“Let's go back quickly. Mark, on our Facebook page, says, 'Just a yes or no, please, Dr. Hill. Do you think Roe will be overturned in 2021?'”
“I just don't know. I don't know exactly what's going to happen. I do know that the approach to undoing Roe has been incremental, and whether it will be completely overturned or whether there will be another incremental change is yet to be seen.”
"Change starts at the top."
“You write that you believe we are now on the verge of monumental change. Monumental. Describe the change you think is coming, and how will we know when it's happening?”
“Well, first of all, we will know that we are really at a point of change when we have leadership acknowledge the severity and pervasiveness and urgency of gender-based violence. When we have a leader that says ‘I will make this a priority, and I'm going to commit resources to not only better understand the problem, but also to directly benefit the people who have been harmed by it and who mostly suffer the horror without any assistance, or with very limited assistance, from the government.’ I want a leader, and I believe we'll understand the harm that's been done, when a leader says that not only do I want to compensate individuals who have been harmed, I want us to invest in ways to prevent this violence from occurring, to prevent it before it even starts to infect our schools and universities. That's when I think we can begin to see change — the acknowledgment of the problem, because you can't fix a problem that you don't acknowledge exists.”
“You say leader again and again. Is there such a leader in office, or a leader waiting in the wings, that you would like to name?”
“Oh, well, I do talk about the president, President Biden. I think that he has a responsibility to be that leader. But I'm also talking about leaders of corporations, where the problem exists. I'm talking about the university chancellors and presidents. I'm talking about principals in schools. I'm talking about leaders in the courts and in law enforcement. And so I'm talking about all leaders. Change starts at the top.”
Hill made her remarks on River to River.