By Andrea Plaid
Professor Anita Hill lifted my feminism from my soul and inner circle of cohorts and into a public place.
My old hometown newspaper called the women’s center where I served as co-coordinator during my undergrad days to get a quote about the Judiciary Committee’s fooliganery regarding Professor Hill testifying against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Since I answered the phone, I told the reporter exactly what was on my heart to say: I wanted to give Hill a bouquet of roses for speaking out, for steadily speaking her truth about the sexual harassment Thomas inflicted on her.
The reporter used my quote in the story.
As much as the media wanted to make Hill’s testimony about her gender versus Thomas’ race–which Thomas deftly configured for them with his infamous “high-tech lynching” statement, the Republicans cast all kinds of asperations about Hill’s character and motivations for testifying, and the Democrats, led by then-Senator Joe Biden, waffled and left Hill to defend herself against the GOP’s vicious attacks–I knew in my 22-year-old heart that Thomas’ rhetorical sleight-of-hand covered the ugly reality that he more than likely said and did exactly what Hill said he did. In other words, I believed Anita Hill. And I believed her not only because I suffered from sexual violence at the hands of a Black man, I also understood with crystal clarity at a very young age how some Black people will step up and protect a Black man who perpetrates sexual violence by dismissing a Black woman who speaks up about the violation, as my ex-stepfather did when I told him about mine. So, I knew intuitively that Hill told the truth because she had a very tangible sense of community to lose by speaking out against a Black man who used his professional position and power to sexual violate her–in their workplace, no less–and she did it anyway. As she stated in her testimony:
I was aware, however, that telling at any point in my career could adversely affect my future career… It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. It took no initiative to inform anyone. I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.
So, though I meant the bouquet metaphorically, I meant it very, very sincerely: Anita Hill spoke my truth, and I spoke the truth of my gratitude to that hometown reporter back in 1991.
Of course, the rest is history: the Senate approved Thomas’ nomination, and he sits on the Supreme Court. As the time of his SCOTUS nomination, the American Bar Association damned Thomas with the faint praise of rating him “qualified”–with a lot of qualifiers. As quiet as it’s kept, I suspect Hill may have successfully cast a pall over Thomas’ jurisprudential fitness.The Judiciary Committee evenly split their vote, which led to the vote going to the full Senate–and, though divided down the party lines, Thomas received one of the narrowest approvals in about a century.
What can’t be quietly kept is Professor Hill’s immediate and lasting legacy: her testimony led to a very public conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace. Congress passed a federal law made sexual harassment illegal by giving victims of sexual harassment legal recourse, including pursuing back pay, damages, and reinstatement. A year after Hill’s appearance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s filed complaints about workplace sexual harassment rose 50 percent, and private companies implemented training programs to educate their employees about sexual harassment. The voters elected a large number of Congresswomen in 1992, in reaction to their witnessing how badly the Judiciary Committee fucked up during their interrogation of Hill by questioning her character, motives, and choices instead of her claims about Thomas’ inappropriate behavior–which several people substantiated in verbal and written statements.
Hill’s testimony also became a crystallizing moment for Black feminists: a group of Black feminists took out a full-page ad, which ran on November 17, 1991, titled “African American Women In Defense Of Ourselves“:
We are particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of Professor Anita Hill, an African American woman who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her own experience of sexual abuse. The malicious defamation of Professor Hill insulted all women of African descent and sent a dangerous message to any woman who might contemplate a sexual harassment complaint.
We speak here because we recognize that the media are now portraying the Black community as prepared to tolerate both the dismantling of affirmative action and the evil of sexual harassment in order to have any Black man on the Supreme Court. We want to make clear that the media have ignored or distorted many African American voices. We will not be silenced.
Many have erroneously portrayed the allegations against Clarence Thomas as an issue of either gender or race. As women of African descent, we understand sexual harassment as both. We further understand that Clarence Thomas outrageously manipulated the legacy of lynching in order to shelter himself from Anita Hill’s allegations. To deflect attention away from he reality of sexual abuse in African American women’s lives, he trivialized and misrepresented this painful part of African American people’s history. This country, which has a long legacy of racism and sexism, has never taken the sexual abuse of black women seriously. Throughout U.S. history black women have been sexually stereotyped as immoral, insatiable, perverse, the initiators in all sexual contacts–abusive or otherwise. The common assumption in legal proceedings as well as in the larger society has been that black women cannot be raped or otherwise sexually abused. As Anita Hill’s experience demonstrates, Black women who speak of these matters are not likely to be believed.
In 1991, we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman’s experience or this attack upon our collective character without protest, outrage and resistance.
We pledge ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice, no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.
The statement was signed by 1,600 Black women. Four years later, African American Women Speak Out On Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas, edited by Geneva Smitherman with , dropped.
Over twenty years later, Hill’s testimony has earned her several bouquets of gratitude. As chronicled in Freida Mock’s own loving–if a bit visually workaday–documentary titled ANITA, Hill’s testimony serves a through-line for such anti-harassment movements like Hollaback!, paeans penned by Edwidge Danticat, conferences like the historic, intergenerational “Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later” held at Hunter College in 2011, and a video produced by The Nation featuring Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw and director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance Ai-jen Poo. Mock’s film also captures Hill’s own growth as a feminist icon as well as a woman who quietly stays grounded in her family, her career, her roots, and her 11-year-old relationship–all of which, I bet, gave her the strength to laugh off Justice Thomas’ wife demanding that Professor Hill apologize for her testimony against her husband back in ’91.
Hill’s partner comments toward the end of ANITA on seeing “so many strong women” and recognizes how their strength–our strength–came from Prof. Hill’s courage to speak out against her harasser. And all I can say to that is, “Yep…and, thank you, Professor Hill, for getting us here.”
There just aren’t enough flowers