Appropriating Anita Hill’s narrative 27 years later.
It’s October 22nd, 2018. Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice a little less than two weeks ago, and a few days later Anita Hill was back on Penn’s campus to reflect on Congressional hearings: hers and Christine Blasey-Ford’s. At this event, hosted by the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department in a crowded Irvine Auditorium, Vice Provost Anita Allen, an accomplished lawyer and professor in her own right, introduces the three Black women onstage. Dorothy Roberts, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Anita Hill have all been breaking barriers for African-American women in their respective fields, pursuing degrees at prestigious law schools, and foraying into environments that could have hardly been welcoming to women of color.
Watching Roberts, Crenshaw, and Hill interact and convey the depths of their knowledge and understanding of civil rights issues was striking – these women are literal personifications of Black Girl Magic. Particularly resonant in the image of their coming-together is the idea that scholars can indeed be advocates for social equality and change, even though academia and the body of knowledge it produces is often overlooked in affecting reform.
Concerned with pursuing justice as it relates to gender and race the work of Roberts, Crenshaw, and Hill constantly proves that we don’t yet live in a post-racial world, and that acknowledging the role of race fights against the erasure of women of color. In critical legal studies and feminist legal theory, Black men are Men, and White women are Women. Black women, therefore, stand nowhere in jurisprudence without Crenshaw’s critical race theory that explains intersectionality.
The tension between the prevailing antiracist and feminist appropriations of Hill served to both vilify and celebrate her, turning her into a public citizen and making sexual harassment a national issue in 1991.
Regarding Anita Hill’s experience, the lack of intersectional narratives played a key role in her case against Clarence Thomas concerning his alleged workplace harassment. The tension between the prevailing antiracist and feminist appropriations of Hill served to both vilify and celebrate her, turning her into a public citizen and making sexual harassment a national issue in 1991. Considering the timelines, I can’t help but think Hill’s bravery might have empowered Christine Blasey-Ford, 25 years old at the time of Hill’s testimony and 10 years into grappling with her own trauma, to come forward in 2018. With or without Kavanaugh’s resulting confirmation, this is still a national issue, and Hill is still working for justice by reinvigorating Title IX (which has particular relevance for those of us battling sexual violence on campus) and bringing into her discussion the #MeToo revival in Hollywood, an industry whose structures are dangerously conducive for harassment.
What went wrong in this case 27 years later?
The parallels between the Kavanaugh and Thomas Senate judiciary hearings are devastating; the differences, particularly the racial ones, are intriguing. Here’s how Hill broke it down:
- The Process: While we were all hoping to have a fairer process this time around, several of the procedural flaws from 1991 remained.
- The Timeline: In 1991, Hill was given just a week to prepare for her testimony, just as Ford was rushed through the Senate’s strict timetable for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
- The Investigation: In 1991, the Senate did not launch a full investigation into Hill’s claims. This time around, the investigation conducted by the FBI was clearly a sham and lacked neutrality and thoroughness.
- The Witnesses: In 1991, there were restrictions on which witnesses were called to support Hill’s testimony; the same limits were placed on Blasey-Ford, in which there were other women who alleged sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh that were not called.
What were the key differences between Hill and Ford’s experiences?
- In 1991, the White House, Justice Department, and Republican senators all ganged up on Hill. But in Ford’s case this didn’t occur (even Trump conceded that her testimony was convincing and waited a couple days before mocking her at a rally).
- Claims of the victim’s erotomania, which were prevalent during the 1991 hearing, were missing in 2018.
- There were more women, and three people of color, on the judiciary committee in 2018, a step-up from the unanimously white and male committee of 1991.
In 1991, the American people wanted to understand sexual harassment. In 2018, with a whole body of information that’s been developed in the last three decades on sexual harassment, the way the Senators framed the process and questions to Ford excluded that body of knowledge.
Most importantly, one of the main points Hill enumerated in the panel discussion, was that the purpose of this Supreme Court hearing was as much to inform the Senate of the character and fitness of the individual nominee as it was for the American public, showing the people the significance of the Supreme Court and its integrity. In 1991, the American people wanted to understand sexual harassment. In 2018, with a whole body of information that’s been developed in the last three decades on sexual harassment, the way the Senators framed the process and questions to Ford excluded that body of knowledge. Seeking the truth in this situation, no matter how ugly, aligns with the interests of having a Supreme Court that people have confidence and faith in, and whose impartiality and integrity they believe in. But by pitting the protection of victims of sexual assault against the pursuit of a strong, independent court, the U.S. Senate lost sight of both goals. Thus, Hill rightly denounced the hearing as a disservice to Christine Blasey-Ford, and a greater disservice to the American public.
Several questions are raised by this failure.
How do we correct maladaptive information control by our representatives?
Congressmen need to be held accountable for making sure that issues like the misconduct of public officers are transparent and used to make the American public well-informed, especially concerning how the Senators vote in a confirmation process.
Additionally, why had the Senate not put into place a process for sexual misconduct allegations before this occurred with Kavanaugh?
They had 27 years to figure it out! The answer, according to Crenshaw, is that the lessons learned from Hill’s case were the opposite of what they should’ve been. As a member of Hill’s legal team, Crenshaw had a front-row seat to observing the optics of the hearing. This time around, she says, the Senators at least got the photo-op right. Hill’s hearing was held in a huge room, with the Senators seated far away—the very image of an imbalanced tribunal. Criticism of this shaped the 2018 hearing, which was held in an intimate room, with Ford’s family and supporters sitting right by her, and silent Republican senators during her testimony. But even the less-pronounced distance between the Senators and Ford, along with the use of a female sex crimes prosecutor, did little to rid the situation of its underlying patriarchal and interrogative context.
This imbalance is not unfamiliar. Women who come forward about sexual abuse must go through fire and water to be believed, and, if successful, only then does the focus of the investigation shift to the aggressor. A blatant example of this can be found in the behavior of Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah (who is somehow still in the Senate today) when he brought in a copy of The Exorcist (1973) to allege that Hill had plagiarized part of her testimony from the movie! The implication there was obvious—women who bring forward these claims are possessed, demonic, and evil. Though the Senate is special in its role as a political theater, we can see the reflections of these stereotypes in the treatment of everyday sexual abuse victims.
What do we need to do to avoid a dismissal of sexual abuse again 30 years from now?
Crenshaw argues that we must confront the fact that patriarchy and racism as structures don’t change because we gain some rights. Looking back at Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, so many were hopeful for the FBI’s report; there’s this collective faith in our institutions and laws that they’re going to affirm equal opportunities. Some of this is a valid product of the transformative nature of recent laws and social change. But we need to continue to hold up these moments of collective outrage (like #MeToo) so that they generate more understanding about the issues of inequity that plague us.
We need to think critically about the confirmation process and discourse surrounding it. Crenshaw made an enlightening point that this confirmation process was not concerned with whether Kavanaugh was qualified to be a Supreme Court justice, but about whether he was a robust enough conservative. His sexual misconduct allegations were simply a blip along the way of the pursuit of a certain Supreme Court profile.
What we need most, Crenshaw argues, is a sustained conversation about patriarchy. 1991 was a moment, as #MeToo is a moment, and from these we need to draw a baseline societal understanding of justice, and about who has credibility in these cases. Kavanaugh’s testimony, where he told obvious lies, used a shotgun approach to attack Congressional liberals, and even threatened that “what goes around comes around,” providing clear evidence of untruthfulness and his lack of judicial temperament. Yet it was somehow juxtaposed with Blasey-Ford’s unshakeable testimony and the case just ended in a “he said, she said” draw.
The deception of the pretext of fairness was the most damning factor of this hearing and it was permitted because we lack a societal framework for credibility and accountability.
At the end of Blasey-Ford’s testimony, politicians across the aisle could do little to say it was uncredible or lacked gravity, so the issue became whether this allegation of misconduct mattered enough to impede Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And the Senators trampled over Ford’s trauma the moment Kavanaugh came in raging though his “impassioned” testimony. The deception of the pretext of fairness was the most damning factor of this hearing and it was permitted because we lack a societal framework for credibility and accountability.
How do we solve a problem we don’t even name?
Crenshaw provides language for this: Men have discursive capital over women. This is the key credibility problem with sexual abuse and all forms of discrimination and inequality. Remember when a male colleague in the workplace stole your idea and was given enthusiastic credit, as it was so plausible to your colleagues that it was his? That’s discursive inequality – giving automatic legitimacy to certain voices because they’re male, white, etc. Kate Mann also discusses “himpathy,” or the emotional dimension of this discursive inequality. Kavanaugh lost his mind during his testimony; if Ford had done the same, conservatives would’ve run her out of the Senate. Why is this emotional outburst validating for Kavanaugh? There is a gendered distribution of societal support and concern that is very much a part of our culture. Thomas had his racialized version of it, as shown by reactions to his infamous lynching comment (even though he did not have the right to claim that lynching legacy against a Black woman).
In this Senate hearing, we were not just dealing with Kavanaugh’s behavior; we were also dealing with the systems that protect, encourage, and reward misconduct by men against women.
But Christine Blasey-Ford, as a private citizen, had no support structure, no organization on the inside or connections to the confirmation decision-makers, that could help her. In this Senate hearing, we were not just dealing with Kavanaugh’s behavior; we were also dealing with the systems that protect, encourage, and reward misconduct by men against women. Particularly at the college level, we can best understand the behavioral reward that existed for young Kavanaugh’s behavior. It exists still now in the structures (like our University) that manage fraternities, sports teams, etc. But we also need to be cognizant of the fact that liberal institutions, like our dear University, also still deal with racial biases in subtle ways, and how these interact with rewarding misogynistic conduct.
Indeed, even the structures supporting civil rights movements have been framed by discriminating and problematic frameworks, going back to Thomas’ testimony in 1991. Thomas didn’t have the privilege of being a white man, but Hill was trapped between antiracism and feminism. Feminists in 1991 were colorblind to Hill’s vulnerability to harassment as a Black woman. Though Thomas’ lynching comment was inapplicable against Hill (as Crenshaw said, “What black man has ever been lynched because of something a black woman has said?”), the comment allowed Thomas to portray himself as a “free-thinking Black man,” putting the civil rights and antiracists movements at odds with Hill’s interests as a woman. Hill, as a Black woman, was not allowed as a victim, because there was an asymmetry in the Black community as to who had credibility. This asymmetry exists, Crenshaw says, still today because we lack mainstream language to fight against structures undermining unification.
Today, civil rights structures are being framed as anti-American and even reverse discriminatory (heard of #HimToo?). This continues to play out in our law and culture. Black women are the least likely to win their discrimination claims, while the majority of white Americans think white Americans are the population group most likely to be discriminated against.
What should we keep in mind moving forward?
These structures don’t discriminate—they embrace the undermining of all our rights, from systematically stripping different segments of the population of their voting rights to the perpetuation of police brutality against communities of color.
In affecting change, we can make all the policies we want, but there are people and structures who are in the business of undermining those policies. We see this in the rise in social consciousness and change in 1991 that was undermined by unjust structures, which attacked civil rights and took away the protections of those rights. Hill, an expert in contract law even before the judiciary hearing, presented the fact that tactics like forced arbitration and non-disclosure agreements rose during the 1990s, going from 2% in 1991 to composing 50% of all contracts now. The Supreme Court has sanctioned this (and with Kavanaugh’s appointment, will likely continue to support it). This isn’t limited to issues of sexual assault. These structures don’t discriminate—they embrace the undermining of all our rights, from systematically stripping different segments of the population of their voting rights to the perpetuation of police brutality against communities of color. So, we need to understand policy limitations and beat those systems to the punch. Industries and corporations also need to participate; Hill’s work with reinvigorating Title IX is one of the many movements holding organizations accountable.
Overall, this discussion panel was able to show the power of black women’s leadership. This is the way forward to a more just world—remembering black women’s legacy of advocacy.
Yet despite all this change, it’s easy to look at 2018 and feel like we’re in the Twilight Zone. It’s almost like none of what took place 27 years before has lasted. Maybe nothing “went” wrong with the Kavanaugh hearing. Instead, we couldn’t be complacent and expect justice to come to us. We need to keep moving forward.
The battle continues.
(Illustration: Sophie Lee)