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Anita Hill Interview – Anita Hill Sexual Harassment and Christine Blasey Ford

There’s an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that’s of special significance to Anita Hill: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face,” it begins. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

In 1991, Hill faced the fearsome ordeal of testifying, on TV, before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee at Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. She accused him of sexually harassing her 10 years earlier, when she’d worked as his assistant at the U.S. Department of Education and then at the EEOC. After the hearings were over—the committee having all but ignored her testimony—Hill’s distinguished legal career took a back seat to the national symbol she’d become: a woman degraded.

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“I try to channel anger, whatever is left, into resolve.”

Meanwhile, Thomas would be confirmed for his position on the Supreme Court.“I’m sure somewhere in me there’s anger,” Hill admitted from her home in Waltham, Massachusetts (she’s been teaching at nearby Brandeis University since 1998). “But I try to channel anger, whatever is left, into resolve, and especially resolve that this does not happen to other women.” Already the first tenured black professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law at the time of the hearings, she’d go on to write two acclaimed books and inspire a multitude of women to speak out about workplace harassment.

Now, psychologist and professor Christine Blasey Ford stands in the same position Hill once did, having accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when the two were in high school. “In 1991, the phrase ‘they just don’t get it’ became a popular way of describing senators’ reaction to sexual violence,” Hill wrote in a New York Times op ed about the Ford case.With years of hindsight, mounds of evidence of the prevalence and harm that sexual violence causes individuals and our institutions, as well as a Senate with more women than ever, ‘not getting it’ isn’t an option for our elected representatives. In 2018, our senators must get it right.”

Last year, Hill became the chair of the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, an organization cofounded by producer and Lucas film president Kathleen Kennedy in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations. While the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are welcome watershed moments in the history of sexual harassment, Hill knows that it’s after the waters calm that the work begins.

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You testified about sexual harassment 27 years ago. Why do you think we had to wait until now for people to really pay attention?

ANITA HILL: The public was in a position to understand and believe A-list stars. But for the vast universe of us, we don’t have that social and cultural narrative. And [for us], society falls back on myths that women have to look a certain way, be a certain race or sexual identity, or be wealthy [to be believed]. We fall back on the myth that all women are dishonest about this and not to be trusted.

Do you ever get sick of revisiting the past?

It depends on how we talk about it. Twenty-seven years ago, there was a surge in the number of people complaining about sexual harassment, suing on their own behalf, and there was real movement within organizations to establish policies and procedures. And still, 26 years later, we realized that we didn’t get where we needed to be.

“I can’t demand, and I can’t even assure people, that coming forward is the right choice.”

If someone came to you and said she’d been harassed, would you unequivocally encourage her to come forward?

The way the law is set up, I’d have to report it if it were a student. But aside from the law, do I think it is safe to say to everyone, “Go report this abuse”? No. I know the horrible statistics on retaliation. As many as 60, or maybe 70, percent of people who file complaints are retaliated against. I can’t demand, and I can’t even assure people, that coming forward is the right choice.

So what can you do?

Inform people: Here are your options, here are your resources, here are the organizations that are responsible for ensuring this doesn’t happen to you.

When did you get interested in civil service?

I was about 13, and in my older sister’s sorority magazine, I read about two women, Yvonne Burke and Patricia Harris, who were both involved in politics and the civil rights movement. I’d seen African American women in leadership positions in our church, but in terms of having those models on a national platform, it was eye-opening.

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What was the most critical moment in your life before your testimony against Clarence Thomas?

My decision to go to Yale Law School—to leave Oklahoma, a place where I was comfortable, where most of my family was, and take the chance of feeling like a stranger in a very new, foreign, and at times very challenging place. I am the youngest of 13 children, and my parents raised many of us in a segregated society. They wanted me to avail myself of all the opportunities that were out there.

You struggled with medical issues around the same time as the hearings, having surgery in which tumors were removed from your uterus—making you a physical survivor as well as a psychological one. How do the scars differ?

I don’t wish either on anyone, but you can use physical healing as a reminder that you can also heal from emotional pain. It gives you faith that, you know, I got beyond this surgery—I can also get to feeling better psychologically and spiritually and emotionally.

“It’s become sort of a running joke in the household when someone rings the doorbell and we’re not expecting company. ‘Oh,’ we say, ‘is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?’

Joe Biden, who served as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the proceedings, has been criticized by many, including you, for allowing hostile questioning. He came forward just last year and sort of apologized.

It’s funny you said “sort of” apologized. He said, “I owe her an apology.” People were asking, “When are you going to apologize to her?” It’s become sort of a running joke in the household when someone rings the doorbell and we’re not expecting company. “Oh,” we say, “is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?”

So you’re not waiting with bated breath?

There are more important things to me now than hearing an apology from Joe Biden. I’m okay with where I am.

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