Anita Hill's Fight to End Gender-based Violence
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi, everyone. This is the Takeaway and I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. It's good to have you with us. Now let's get started.
Professor Anita Hill: Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life but it was very close to having to live through the experience that occasion, this meeting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Professor Anita Hill in 1991. 30 years ago this month, Professor Hill faced the excruciating experience of testifying before the Senate judiciary committee. Hill's testimony came after Senate investigators contacted her as part of the vetting process for Supreme court nominee, Clarence Thomas. The investigators asked her about her experiences working with Thomas, and she told them about the improper conduct, harassment, and vile language he subjected her to in the workplace.
The judiciary committee then called her to testify, and she did so somewhat reluctantly but believing that it was her duty as an American citizen. This was the kind of questioning she was subjected to by the committee.
Committee: What was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?
Committee: Professor Hill, you said that you took it to mean that Judge Thomas wanted to have sex with you, but in fact, he never did ask you to have sex. Correct?
Committee: I've got to determine what your motivation might be. Are you a scorned woman?
Melissa Harris-Perry: After her testimony, Thomas angrily denied the allegations but there were several additional witnesses who stood at the ready to corroborate Hill's allegations and to testify to their own experiences of suffering workplace harassment by Clarence Thomas. The committee chaired by then-Senator Joe Biden never called those witnesses. Despite Hill's courage, clarity, and credibility, Thomas was confirmed to the court. The vote was the narrowest margin of confirmation for a justice in a century. This moment, it was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for Anita Hill.
The youngest of 13 children born to loving devout and dedicated parents at Oklahoma, Hill was already an accomplished legal scholar before her 1991 testimony. In the three decades since that moment, Anita Hill has become a catalyst for change and a warrior in the battle for gender equity. She's authored a new book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence. She joins me to discuss it. Professor Anita Hill, welcome.
Professor Anita Hill: Thank you. It's good to be with you today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's been 30 years since you were called before the Senate judiciary committee to testify to your experiences working with then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. I wonder as you look back across the past three decades if the country feels more equitable today.
Professor Anita Hill: I get a feeling today that we are moving in a right direction. That doesn't mean there isn't resistance to that movement, but I think the movement is now much more engaged and has a better feeling of empowerment than ever before. I think we're better informed. We have so many things on our side, including a new generation of activists and activism.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You wrote in the new book that at first, you thought the struggle to end gender violence was going to be a marathon, but then you came to see it as a relay. Can you expand on that relay metaphor a bit?
Professor Anita Hill: At least four decades away from that experience and that feeling, I moved from thinking it was a sprint to thinking about the journey as a marathon or the racism marathon. Now I realize that it is a relay where every generation does their part, and then eventually, they hand the baton to someone else. We hope that every leg of the relay increases our chances of succeeding.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet, you also write in a very careful way about this notion of generational change. You warn us that you can't simply believe that old ideas will die out and that the young will show up more progressive, more equitable, more open. In fact, you write some very painful stories of what adolescents are experiencing the abuse, the bullying that sometimes even ends in these young people taking their own lives. Can you talk to us about how this relay works? If it's not just about, "Oh, don't worry. The next generation will do it better."
Professor Anita Hill: Oh, the next generation shouldn't have the burden of doing it better. That burden should be shared by every generation. One of the things that I've learned to do is to think about the problem in three different ways or three different categories. The first is to think about the behavior that is happening and I've heard from survivors and victims about the terrible behavior that they experienced.
I do chronicle some of that with regard to behavior experienced by very young people, elementary and secondary school children, but there are two other aspects of the problem and that's the cultural issues, the responses that people get to when they bring complaints about bad behavior, being what they're talking about isn't that bad and they should just get over it and move on or ignore it.
That message gets repeated over and over. Cultural responses also include victim blaming and shaming. Our generation can't keep giving that message to children because what we're doing is we are grooming them to accept bad experiences, to accept abuse, and we're grooming the persons who might be behaving badly to believe that their behavior is acceptable.
The third way that I think it's important for us to look at this, and the reason that I really believe that we just can't count on culture and cultural evolution is that these kinds of messages that deny harm and deny behavior altogether, there are people who still insist that sexual harassment isn't such a big problem after all, or sexual assault or rape isn't as frequent as it truly is, or intimate partner violence doesn't really happen to the people we know.
There's this denial and dismissal that gets built into the systems that victims go to, to try to get their problems resolved. Those things will not go away unless we look at our systems, examine them, criticize them, understand how they are, in fact, complicit in the problem.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You wrote about being asked the question by a parent, how can I prepare my daughter for college so that she doesn't allow herself to become a victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault? I thought the way that you walked through the troubling nature of that framework was really valuable for explaining exactly what you've just said. That it's built-in, even to those of us who in a moment like that are trying to be helpful, and yet to say, how do I prepare her so she doesn't allow herself to become a victim?
Professor Anita Hill: The sad reality is that we know that young women going to college, one in four of them will experience sexual misconduct, including assault and touching and gropings and coercion. What we should be doing is telling the leaders of our colleges and universities that it is their responsibility to provide a safe environment and to set up the right systems so that when something does happen, they can be heard. Universities really have not stepped up to provide the systems that will allow victims to have a place to complain, to have a system that will get to the truth so that there can be someone accounting for bad behavior.
The other thing though, is that we don't spend enough time on prevention. What you have to be doing all along is undoing those bad messages that people have gotten. If we want people to report into a system, we have to take into account that perhaps many of them, for years, have been told that there's nothing that can be done about this problem.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're talking with professor Anita Hill. We're talking about her new book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence. Let's go back in time a bit. Can you talk about Lillian Miles Lewis, who she was, and how she inspired your current work?
Professor Anita Hill: Lillian Miles Lewis was the wife of John Lewis. She became a friend of mine after the hearings when I spoke at Spelman in February of 1992, just a few months after the hearing, she came to visit with me at Spelman. I think she came there to tell me about how important it was for me as an African American woman to use the platform that I would have, having testified before the nation to use that platform, to bring boys to the issue of sexual harassment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This had not been the focus of your work as a law professor before 1991. It had not been the focus of your work per se, certainly, part of it at the EOC. I'm wondering, on this 30-year journey that you've been on, have you ever regretted deciding so fully to use your voice and your platform to shift your legal brilliance, your public persona towards addressing these questions of gender violence?
Professor Anita Hill: I have not regretted and you're absolutely right, this was not where I started my journey. I do credit Lillian Miles Lewis for giving me the courage really to even think about, even consider that I might be able to make a unique contribution, so, no, I don't regret it. She is one of the people that I dedicate the book to because had it not been for her in that conversation, I don't think that I would have seen the full opportunity that I had and how I could ultimately use my skills and my training and my experiences to bring a different message and in a different way.
You know what else was truly compelling are the letters and messages and emails now that I received from people who are survivors or victims of a whole variety of what I'm calling gender-based violence. They wanted to know what we needed to do so that what had happened to them didn't happen to others. I really had to expand my own thinking beyond court decisions about how we were going to move because I had to recognize the human aspect of what was happening to me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Professor Hill, because I knew our interview was coming up, I have spoken with many of the guests here on the takeaway and I've asked them if they have questions for you. I have a few, I pulled a few of those questions and I thought I would play those. We'll just do them one at a time and see what else we learn here. I want to start with Dr. Monique Morris, who is CEO of Grantmakers for Girls of Color. I also would ask her what she thinks about how to communicate with Black girls, especially about the power of their voice when people doubt them. Where do they find spirit? What would she say to them in terms of finding their power to stand when the world doubts their truth?
Professor Anita Hill: The power comes from above. You can't rely on other people to give you that power, that you have to dig deep inside of who you are and trust in your own authenticity and fortitude and really draw from that to affirm. You really have to start with affirming yourself and that's, I think where we have to teach girls that they are valuable and that what they have to say and what they do matters. It matters not only for themselves but for others as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We also have a question from Dr. Monica McLemore, who is Associate Professor of Family Healthcare Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dr. Monica McLemore: How would she reimagine the structures that are necessary for us to really address sexual harassment in the workplace that will allow us to have sustainable accountability for these issues as well as a way to better send her survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and discrimination in the workplace?
Professor Anita Hill: Well, we've got to really think about the balance of power in our institutions. Specifically, what we have now are systems that put the entire burden of solving their problem on the individual who is alleging abuse. That should be shifted because the responsibility for creating safe workplaces has to start with the people who control those workplaces. There needs to be a shift in the way of thinking. We require people to come forward, file a complaint, review every detail, be convincing, and instead, what should be going on in our institutions is leaderships that really do clear assessment of the likelihood of this behavior, the frequency of this behavior in their own workplaces.
The burden really shifts to them to start to clean up and to prevent this behavior. One of the ways that we can prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault is to start with the many, what we call microaggressions and the bullying and gender harassment that isn't sexual. We can start with eliminating those behaviors that haven't reached the level to a formal EEOC complaint, but that feed into worse behaviors and more egregious behavior.
If we don't tolerate those, if we make sure that everyone knows that we're not going to tolerate bullying and gender harassment and microaggressions, then the message is clear that anything worse is never going to be tolerated. I think those are a couple of ways that we can do it. In other words, managers, CEOs must take a proactive position in addressing these problems before they rise to the level of a lawsuit.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to thank you for a gift that you gave me when we spoke about five years ago in 2016 for an essence article. You asked this extraordinary question that I have not stopped asking since that moment, five years ago, you said, "Let me ask this very basic question, what if the Senate had actually taken me seriously." You didn't say, what if they believed me or you just said, what if they actually took me seriously as a citizen speaking to her government? I have reflected on this over and over again. Of course, during the Senate confirmation hearings, for now, Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, I'm wondering in your estimation, if you think the US Senate took Christine Blasey Ford seriously?
Professor Anita Hill: I think, unfortunately, they did not take her seriously. I honestly believe that they did believe her, but they didn't take it seriously. They didn't take what she says happened to her seriously and had they done. Even if they didn't have a system in place before she testified, if they had taken her seriously, if the chair of that committee had taken her seriously, we would have a process in place today, so that her situation 2018, my situation 1991 would never be repeated again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I do want to ask you about your family. You write both about the health of your husband and partner. You also write about your remaining siblings, you're the youngest of 12. I just want to ask about them because I know they're critically important to you and the COVID year and a half has been tough. How is everybody doing?
Professor Anita Hill: Well, the youngest is 13 [inaudible 00:19:15]
Melissa Harris-Perry: 12 siblings?
Professor Anita Hill: Yes, 12 siblings that people got that often because I do want to claim that 13th position. Since the hearing, of course, we've lost my parents and I've lost four brothers. One died during the pandemic last year, but we're still very strong together. We are family and that has been everything to me on this journey, honestly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In conversations with recent guests on The Takeaway, we've also been asking them if they had a question to pose to Professor Hill, and they did, but many of them also had one thing to say.
Dream Hampton: I'd like to thank Professor Anita hill for her courage when she was derided and mocked.
Alexis McGill Johnson: Just a resounding thank you. I just have a tremendous amount of gratitude for her ability, her courageousness, standing up and showing us how to advocate not just for the truth, but for ourselves.
Monica McLemore: I am a great admirer of Professor Hill, and just what she went through was just completely, completely unacceptable. I'm a big fan of her work.
Natalie Hopkinson: For Anita Hill, I would say simply thank you for using your voice, for holding your ground, for continuing to have an incredible career after the debacle. You were right. Also, I would say to Anita Hill, you are right. I hope that everybody can recognize how right you were. Thank you for what you did fighting patriarchy for all women.
Monique Morris: I would want to give thanks as a child I was watching the hearings unfold. I just want to express gratitude for her standing in the space and being unapologetic in affirming her lived experience in a way that demonstrated for me that that was possible.
Susan L. Taylor: Anita Hill, one of the most important moments of my life and I think I speak for many of the essence editors, was really meeting you, embracing you, and giving you an opportunity to speak to the millions of women, and some men who we serve. I think we said this to you if not, I want to say that you are just such a mighty combination of tenderness and surety and toughness, and there was never a moment when aware women doubted what you were saying, "Oh, women."
We knew that you were telling the truth, and we thank you for your bravery, for your courage. It took courage to stand before the world as you did. It just gladdens my heart to see you having elevated your life, and that you're just out there doing magnificent things. God bless you for standing strong for the truth.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Those were the voices of award-winning filmmaker, Dream Hampton, President of Planned parenthood, Alexis McGill Johnson. Professor of Nursing Monica McLemore, Professor of Communication, Natalie Hopkinson, CEO of Grantmakers for Girls of Color, Monique Morris, and Editor in Chief Emerita of Essence, Susan L. Taylor. I had one more question for Professor Hill from Lupe Rodriguez. She's the Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.
Lupe Rodriguez: I think the question would be, how do you keep going after so much? What keeps you motivated and moving forward in the fight for justice?
Professor Anita Hill: I was at [unintelligible 00:23:09] at [unintelligible 00:23:11] High School, and it was an open forum in the cafeteria. This young man came up to the mic and he said to me, how does it feel to know you've changed the world? At the time, I hadn't really thought of myself as changing the world, but to have this young person come to me, and say to me that I can change the world, or then maybe I've changed his world is enough to keep me motivated, it's enough to keep me going even in times when things seem hopeless. There's always hope. There's always a generation behind us, and a generation ahead of us that really wants change to happen, and they want all of us to be a part of it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I asked Professor Hill about President Joe Biden. In her book, she writes quite frankly about elected officials who were involved in the 1991 Senate confirmation hearing. President Joe Biden was, at the time, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In my last conversation with Professor Hill, which was a 2016 interview for Essence, I was stunned to learn that Biden hadn't reached out to offer an apology or make amends, but that now has changed.
Professor Anita Hill: He has reached out to me, and he has apologized for the harm that I experience, because of that hearing and because of the way it was conducted, and because certain witnesses who could corroborate, because they had their own experiences and we're similar we're not called. What I am looking for now is a recognition and an acknowledgment that, that hearing in 1991 did not only injure me, but it injured survivors and victims and their supporters and families all across the country. It injured people who believed that our federal government can do better. That this is a serious problem.
I want acknowledgment that when you look at the extremely high prevalence, and toxic nature of what is going on in our elementary schools and our universities and private institutions, in our military, then you understand that this is a national crisis that we need to address. It's a crisis. It's an embarrassment, I believe, on this country that professors to believe in gender equality, and that if we don't take that serious, if we don't acknowledge it, and then commit resources to eliminating, or at least starting to reduce that, then we are going to pass this on to another generation, and people will continue to be harmed as well our entire country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I had one last question about 1991. I will never forget that one of Professor Hill's colleagues, Professor Joel Paul of American university had the opportunity to testify.
Joe Paul: I cannot imagine anything that Professor Hill could think to gain as a legal academician by coming forward. I think her career has frankly probably suffered as a result of her coming forward. I think that she had a very bright career. I think that if someone had asked me a few weeks ago, I would say that I could imagine Professor Hill coming before this committee in a very different capacity as a traditional nominee herself. I think her opportunities for that now had been destroyed. I think she paid a big price for her conscience.
Melissa Harris-Perry: President Biden has said that if he does have the opportunity to nominate a Supreme court justice, it's his intention to nominate a Black woman. I asked Anita Hill if she would accept the nomination to the Supreme court if one were offered.
Professor Anita Hill: Well, the clock is ticking on that.
I would consider that. I would also consider that there are so many young scholars and judges who can come in with new ideas and new thinking about the law. I think that we want that new energy. I try to keep up with the new thinking, but I recognize that we want somebody who is going to be on that court for a long time, and who can bring a passion for social justice and equality to the possession for decades.
Yes, of course, you have to do what you can to stand by the things that you say you believe in, but in standing by the things that I believe in I would also like the president to consider some of the many young activists and scholars, and young judges who are out there who can serve in just incredibly powerful ways.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Anita Hill, thank you so much for your courage, for your writing. I will tell listeners there is some humor in this book as well, please be sure to read the new book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence. Professor Hill, thank you for joining us today.
Professor Anita Hill: Thank you. Hope and humor, yes, it's there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Y'all, thanks for being with us, and thank you to Professor Anita Hill along with all of our guests that had questions and comments for her. Now, if you love this podcast, tell your friends, and make sure that they subscribe via Apple Podcasts, or just grab it at thetakeaway.org. Thanks again for listening and see you next time.
[00:29:51] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.