Nearly 27 years ago, Anita Hill stood before the all white, all male Senate Judiciary Committee and revealed, in specific and humiliating detail, the behavior she endured at the hands of her former boss, Clarence Thomas. Hill, then a well-respected scholar and lawyer, gave testimony including details of sexual harassment involving pubic hairs on Coke cans and conversations about beastiality. She was not only disbelieved — she was dehumanized.
In 2012, as Thomas entered his third decade as the Supreme Court’s most rigidly conservative member, I edited a book of essays looking back on Anita Hill’s experience, by authors including Hill herself. And as the Senate Judiciary Committee yet again considers claims of sexual misconduct against a potential Supreme Court justice, I’m struck by what’s changed — and what’s stayed the same — since Hill first spoke out.
Back in 1991, plenty of people were undeniably angry at how condescendingly Hill was treated, but twice as many Americans at the time believed him over her. But within a year, Hill’s testimony had ushered in what was dubbed by the media as “The Year of the Woman,” with what was then a record number of women running for public office. The majority believed that Hill was telling the truth — a percentage that would continue to shift in Hill’s favor as the decades went on.
Though the majority of the American public would eventually stand on the right side of history, the conversation around Hill’s testimony revealed the many ways our culture still fell short when discussing allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful men. Primarily, there was a widespread assumption that what happened to Anita Hill was personal to her, rather than part of a pattern of misbehavior by a powerful man. This misunderstanding was helped along by the committee refusing to hear from at least four other women who were willing to testify with similar stories of harassment by Thomas.
This meant that the resounding question at the time was: Can this woman be believed? Men’s truths were treated as inevitable, but women’s had to be earned, and many simply believed that the best way to judge an allegation of sexual misconduct was to evaluate the accuser. Whether or not the accused could have a history of similar behavior was not a priority; questions of why Hill had not spoken up earlier were.
“I know many people who have experienced these things and who have been quiet about it — women who have experienced these things as long as 20 years ago, but who are still emotional and angry if they talk about it, which they rarely do,” said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus at the time. (He was a lone voice on the committee urging his colleagues not to write off Hill’s testimony.) “This is not irrational behavior."
Much has changed since then, as evidenced by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. For starters, the current 21-member Senate Judiciary Committee has four women and three nonwhite members; it’s still far from representative of the US population, but it’s something. But what has changed the most isn’t laws or representation, but us: We are willing to believe women, and we’re much less likely to write off one woman’s experience as just one woman’s experience.
Consider the lines coming from defenders of Kavanaugh as they consider the allegations from Christine Blasey Ford. While some — including Kavanaugh himself — are simply saying she is not telling the truth, many have chosen a different path, asking how seriously we should consider something that is claimed to have happened so long ago, in the throes of youth. That so much of the conversation today is about how severe the consequences should be for past sexual misconduct, rather than the credibility of an accuser, shows how deeply our approach to such allegations has changed.
Most important, it used to be that the court of law trumped the court of public opinion — and Anita Hill has consistently maintained that she was never pursuing a legal case against Thomas. But we have finally reached a mainstream realization that “personal” matters are inextricably connected to power, and that sexual behavior has social and political consequences. Far from being isolated incidents between two adults, some ostensibly sexual behavior isn’t sexual at all: Preying upon women can often be considered an attempt to reinforce hierarchies, squelching women's progress in public life.
There’s a role for the justice system in dealing with such predatory behavior, but today we understand that in a democracy the public must also cast its judgment on who is fit to occupy public positions of power.
“In 1991, Anita Hill made history by the simple yet terrifically courageous act of standing up to an arrogantly gender-biased political culture,” wrote Patricia Hill in The Nation on the 20th anniversary of the hearings. It wasn’t just a political culture that looked down on her testimony — so too did “the public [who] rejected the testimony of my life experience,” Hill later wrote. Almost three decades later, Ford isn’t just speaking up about her truths, but also speaking out against what continues to be a woman-hating culture.
Regardless of where this lands, Christine Blasey Ford is being deemed credible, with even her most strident partisan opponents debating the substance of her allegations, not the reliability of her character. In the he said–she said wars, women have consistently lost, but the past year has begun to shake that up. Whether or not the law is on her side, the public clearly is.