Anita Hill–and Ourselves

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Dianne Feeley

ANITA HILL IS Everywoman who has worked. When reporters asked “How could she have continued to work with him?” “How could she have kept quiet?” women knew the answer because so many of us have done the same. What were our reasons? We felt we had no choice. We needed the job. We accepted our humiliation as being “natural” or inevitable. We pretended we hear what was said, we words—or even the actions—and went on with our lives.

Sometimes the man was our boss. Sometimes he was a coworker. Sometimes it was limited to verbal harassment Sometimes we seemed to be the only woman targeted, other times every woman was fair game. Sometimes it stopped. In other cases we quietly jobs.

Before Anita Hill testified about Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment, the women’s and civil rights movements opposed Thomas’ confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court His opposition to affirmative action, his running the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in order to dismantle instead of enforce civil rights, his unbelievable silence on the issue of a woman’s right to abortion and his record of speaking before conservative audiences about “natural law” were the basis upon which progressive organizations objected to his confirmation—but such testimony was seen as irrelevant and Thomas’ confirmation was assured. Both Democrats and Republicans were prepared to confirm him.

The Repressed Reality

Because he didn’t have even the “distinguished” legal record of many conservative judges, the Bush administration, in putting Thomas forward, stressed his character. Behind the scenes, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided it was unnecessary to conduct hearings into Hill’s affidavit Initially she did not volunteer a great deal of information to the FBI—she decided not to repress the incidents of sexual harassment, but to tell as little as possible. For his part, President Bush, in reading the initial report, declared his continued support for Thomas.

But the leak galvanized the nation as few issues have done over the past decade. Once the sexual harassment charge was public, Anita Hill was forced to defend herself by recalling all of the details. Suddenly everyone was talking about the issue of sexual harassment.

As Anita Hill testified many women recalled some of the incidents of sexual harassment in our work lives that we’d repressed. And the dirty secrets we’d kept hidden in the recesses of our lives came flooding to the surface, overwhelming us with the humiliations we’d accepted.

What is sexual harassment? Sexual harassment—like rape—is not about sex, but about power. From the beginning it’s been omnipresent in the United States. Slavery, after all, meant any African-American woman was the property of the slaveowner.

But it’s only over the last fifteen years guidelines and court decisions have established a framework for redress—although it’s estimated that no more than five percent of those harassed take formal action. According to the EEOC guidelines, there are two kinds of sexual harassment. The first is when a worker is subject to sexual advances that then become the basis on which the worker is fired or promoted. The second is a hostile work environment, in which sexual harassment is permitted. Unsolicited and unwelcome flirtations, jokes, gestures and questions, display of sexually suggestive pictures, unnecessary and unwanted physical contact, or sexual assault are all forms of harassment The pattern of verbal harassment outlined by Anita Hill is one of the most tenacious: the boss has great power over his assistant People were riveted to TV because the issue is one that touches the great majority of us—it’s about sexual harassment, it’s about the nature of power in the workplace.

Divisions and Politics

The Senate hearings reflected the sexual and racial patterns that prevail in our society. Women who speak out about sexual harassment face the humiliation all over again. The Republicans, who manufactured the racist Willy Horton scare to win the Bush presidency, counterattacked with fury. And after having identified with the Reagan/Bush administrations, after scorning the civil rights movement, Clarence Thomas was forced to defend himself by pointing to how the accusation of sexual misconduct played “into the most bigoted, racist stereotypes that any Blackman will face.”

It is understandable that the African-American community would feel tremendous regret, as the headline in the New York Times expressed it, “Blacks Say the Blood Spilled in the Thomas Case Stains All,” (10/15i91). As Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint pointed out, the “collision of a Black man and a Black woman will have special meaning to Black people.” Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas are both from poor African-American families. The political philosophies each adopted are a decided minority within the Black community, but they are still Black.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never been a democratic instrument Elections and immediate recalls, not lifetime appointments, are instruments of democracy. For the foreseeable period the court is packed with reactionaries, and having Clarence Thomas, a Black conservative who at least has faced discrimination, is no worse than any other conservative Bush would pick It’s clearer than ever before that the U.S. Supreme Court and the Senate Judiciary Committee are instruments of the ruling class, not a force for social change. Both, however, can be influenced by a powerful movement for social change.

The secret is out Sexual harassment is something most women experience and simply old hat for the Democrats and Republicans who control the government Millions have seen how Anita Hill’s charges were dismissed as those of a scorned or bitter woman. But millions have also had a crash course on sexual politics.

November-December 1991, ATC 35