Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Speaking Truth to Power by Anita Hill

Anita Hill changed everything. Harassment in the workplace, whether sexual or not, became instantly recognizable, and everyone could see instances of it in their own lives or in those of their colleagues. Hill’s testimony was a watershed from a moment in time when even senators did not know what sexual harassment was to a time when we all could recount instances of pressure in the workplace, even men. An easily imaginable scenario is one where a family man takes a job where he is supposed to spend considerable after-work time with colleagues who prefer drunken forays to strip clubs. Either get along or get sidelined. This is harassment. It is difficult to prove and damaging to one’s reputation, which is why no one wants to bring it up.

Sexual harassment, of course, involves power relationships and the suggestion of sexual favors in return for job security or advancement. I defy any woman ready to retire who has not seen or experienced instances of sexual harassment in their working lifetimes. Sexual harassment is not over, but it is recognized now for what it is. The thing is, Anita Hill never signed up for exposing a truth and educating the world. She never wanted to talk about it after she removed herself from the job she had working with Clarence Thomas and—this is the first place I feel her pain so keenly—talked herself into accepting a job away from the power positions on the East coast doing something she’d initially had no interest in doing: teaching commercial law in a religious-affiliated law school…in Oklahoma. Oh, I hear that.

This book was published in October 1997, six years after Hill testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the confirmation hearings of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Despite being terribly impressed with what appeared to be Hill’s calm composure during the hearings, I was still unprepared for the knock-it-out-of-the-park clarity, coherence, and completeness of the entirety of Hill’s experience before, during and after that time.

Hill came from a very centered and closely-knit family with strong religious beliefs. She reminds us as she recounts her family’s history how close slavery is to us now. Her great-grandmother, Alice Elliott, died in 1939 just before the Second World War. She was the last of the family to have experienced slavery first-hand. The statements Anita Hill gave about Clarence Thomas threatened her closeness with her community because she was speaking out against the actions of a black man, something which threatened, in the minds of many, perceptions of the race as a whole. Hill’s religious beliefs were put to the test:
“Even religion turned against me, or I should say was turned against me…[some] purporting to speak for the church or God or both advised me to confess my sins, or worse, condemned me to “burn in hell” for my sin of testifying. Before long a few voices, speaking on behalf of a church or religion, would attempt to console me for the experience I had endured, but not before I had grown to distrust the church, if not religion itself.”

Hill completely and eloquently answers all attacks on her testimony and on her person, laying to rest accusations that she was a “lier” [sic]. She was at the center of a storm for many years following her testimony, and had to live through that as well as the turmoil of a Senate hearing. She worked at the University of Oklahoma Law School where some of the funding for her law school and for an endowed chair being set up in her name was being held back by detractors in the Oklahoma state government. The endowed chair was defunded in 1999, never having filled the seat. By that time, Ms. Hill had moved to New England to teach at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. She is there now, teaching Anti-Discrimination Law and Policy (Gender and Race).

This past month Anita Hill’s experience was brought again to my attention, first when Charles P. Pierce, the edgy political commentator for Esquire magazine, suggested that Republicans reluctant to vote on Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy might prefer Anita Hill to fill the vacancy. First I laughed, then I wondered... This month also the HBO made-for-TV movie on the Clarence Thomas hearings was announced. Not being able to view HBO, I wasn’t able to see it, but I did look for the 2013 documentary film called Anita, which goes through some of the withering un-lawyerly questioning by the senate committee and shows Ms. Hill’s steadfastness under pressure. There is also a section which gives some later context to her career, her marriage, and the work in which she is currently engaged. She has a new book on an important topic, called Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home (Beacon Press, 2011), which combines two areas of law which she has taught: the book looks at commercial and anti-discrimination law combined with an examination of culture and society to address the 2008 foreclosure crisis and its ongoing impact.

Anita Hill changed everything. Now even senators know what sexual harassment is.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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