By Toni Walker
In 1991, Anita Hill stood before an all-white, male, Senate Judiciary Committee and bravely testified that she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas when she worked for him from 1981 to 1983. Two weeks ago, a similarly courageous Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified at the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, sharing that she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh. Neither of these testimonies prevented the confirmation of their abusers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Twenty-seven years since Hill’s act of bravery and a year into what has been characterized as the #MeToo Movement, the U.S. government has doubled down on its original position: survivors of sexual assault and/or harassment don’t deserve justice when that justice threatens white patriarchal dominance.
On the heels of Brett Kavanaugh’s highly contested confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, Penn had the opportunity to hear from Professors Anita Hill, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Dorothy Roberts, three distinguished legal scholars all too familiar with this nation’s repeated dismissal of sexual harassment and sexual assault. With Professor Dorothy Roberts as moderator, Wednesday’s conversation between Anita Hill and Kimberlé Crenshaw served as both a moment of reflection and a call to action. In addition to expressing their disappointment in the outcome of the Kavanaugh hearings, they discussed some of the striking similarities and important differences between the experiences of Hill and Ford.
Hill argued that the flaws in both hearings reflect a central issue – process. Hill was only given two days to prepare for her testimony in 1991; Ford given a week. “They were more concerned about their schedule than with getting the truth,” Hill stressed. Crenshaw and Hill also noted that the questions during the Kavanaugh hearings completely neglected the important work that has been done surrounding issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault since Hill’s testimony. Despite Thomas’s confirmation, Hill’s bravery made sexual harassment in the workplace a national issue. Workplace policies around sexual harassment were implemented nation-wide and more people came forward about their experiences. In fact, the number of workplace sexual harassment complaints doubled in the two years following. However, it seemed as if none of this was of any importance in the Kavanaugh hearings. “[Their questions] excluded a whole body of information that has developed in three decades,” insisted Dr. Hill. She went on to claim that the hearings and confirmation were “not only a disservice to the witnesses but a disservice to the American public” and “a failure to really help the American people understand the issue.”
This sentiment was echoed by Crenshaw, who added that although there was a strategic shift in the packaging of the Kavanaugh hearings, this didn’t have any real impact on the outcome of the process. Unlike Hill–whose character was relentlessly stereotyped and attacked by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991–Ford was barely addressed or challenged during her testimony. In fact, most of the committee members expressed that they were “moved” by her testimony, a significant shift from the responses to Hill’s testimony. However, as Crenshaw mentioned, “People ran over [Dr. Blasey-Ford’s] trauma as soon as Judge Kavanaugh came out.” While Hill’s testimony was aggressively challenged immediately, Ford’s testimony was strategically overshadowed. The unique responses to both testimonies reveal the mechanisms and institutionalization of white patriarchal dominance.
“Patriarchy doesn’t really change because we have some rights,” Crenshaw declared. Instead, it shifts to appeal to the favor of men even when there’s more than enough evidence to prove that such men are guilty. “The discursive capital that men have over women is a problem.” This was strikingly apparent in Hill’s case as this asymmetry in power and perception directly targeted her identity as a Black woman. When Thomas made the claim that his hearings in 1991 was a “high-tech lynching,” his public support skyrocketed. To this, Crenshaw posed the question, “When has a Black man ever been lynched for anything a Black woman said?” But compelling questions like these are drowned out by the discursive power that men exercise. Entire histories and experiences are silenced because of this discursive power.
“Sexual harassment at work has been a feature of Black women’s lives since the moment we arrived on these shores,” said Crenshaw. Thus, it is no surprise that Black women have historically been responsible for launching issues of workplace sexual harassment into the national spotlight. Crenshaw noted that Anita Hill’s testimony followed in the footsteps of Black women like Sandra Bundy and Pamela Price who filed some of the first workplace sexual harassment cases in U.S. history. When these women came forward with their experiences, they were not only up against their abusers; they were up against white patriarchal systems. “We are not just dealing with behavior. We are dealing with systems that protect it, sometimes encourages it, and rewards it,” Hill insisted, citing the significant influence that the Federalist society holds in nominating and confirming Supreme Court Justices.
As we look forward, Hill urges us to examine how these injustices manifest in all aspects of all institutions. Crenshaw added that we should think more critically about the entire confirmation process and ask ourselves “How do we hold up these moments so they can continue to generate change?” Though the work to dismantle structural inequalities may be exhausting and often times discouraging, Anita Hill and Kimberlé Crenshaw reminded us of just how important that work is and has always been.