Opinion: What we can learn from Anita Hill

The misogyny and prejudice of the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were repeated in the Kavanaugh hearings; we cannot let this pattern continue

Content warning: sexual assault

“I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number-one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.” When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of attempted sexual assault, that was the argument he used as a defense. A respectable man educated at an Ivy would never commit such a crime.

Flaunting his education, Kavanaugh not only contributes to but also highlights the dangerous idea that men from elite universities must be virtuous people. This attitude has continually worked to protect them when they hurt others, especially women. We see this in the Kavanaugh hearings: the Senate believed his testimony over Ford’s and he was successfully confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he now sits.

In a case that was hauntingly similar to Kavanaugh’s, now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, also a Yale Law School graduate, allegedly sexually harassed a woman in the 1980s. Her allegations surfaced during Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1991. And, like Kavanaugh, despite the woman’s graphically detailed testimony and outrage from feminist groups, Thomas was ultimately believed, his accuser was not, and now he sits on the Supreme Court.

The woman who spoke up 27 years ago was Anita Hill. Last Sunday, in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, she gave a speech at Vanderbilt with a surprisingly calm but nonetheless powerful message: it is the duty of the public to check men in power and to believe and include the stories of victims of sexual abuse, especially those of color.

Hill continued the tradition of baring wounds publicly in her 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas during his nomination hearing.

In her speech, Hill did not go in depth about her case against Thomas, framing that experience as only one of many cases in the political history of the United States. Instead, she focused on the underrepresentation of past sexual assault victims’ narratives, specifically those of women of color, including the pioneers Paulette Barnes (1967), Sandra Bundy (1981) and Mechelle Vinson (1986), who were the first to courageously speak out about their experiences in a legal setting.

Hill continued the tradition of baring wounds publicly in her 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas during his nomination hearing. For some background, after the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall retired, he said the goal for selecting his successor was to “pick the best person for the job, not on the basis of race one way or another.” In spite of his predecessor’s wishes, however, Thomas’s hearing came to be defined by race.

In response to Hill’s testimony for Thomas’s hearing, he aggressively denied every allegation of sexual harassment and concluded by calling the confirmation “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” In front of the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas deflected from charges of sexism by asserting that only racism was at play.

Last Sunday, Hill discussed how race plays into sexual assault, about how it contributes to the dismissal of women of colors’ stories. She indirectly spoke to her experience with Thomas, defining it with more than just a racial lens: it was about the vulnerabilities that women of color face, even when talking about an issue that impacts all women.

Women, but especially women of color, do not have their own political voice because we assume that men speak for them. Hill emphasized how, as such, throughout history, the narratives of women have been suppressed and taken out of policy consideration. The narratives of women, especially women of color, are not considered when our nation’s predominantly white, male institutions make decisions about how to handle sexual misconduct.

This can be seen when we compare Hill and Ford’s treatment in the Senate. In 1991, Senate Judiciary members not only attacked Hill’s testimony but also her character. In 2018, the Republicans acknowledged that there needed to be a female voice on the Court in order for fair trial for Dr. Ford, appointing Arizona sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to interrogate Ford. This can be seen as a positive advancement of conversation surrounding gender and sexual abuse in 27 years. Race, however, did play a role. Was Ford given more fair treatment because she was white? How would the outcome of Hill’s testimony been different if she was white?

Although, statistically, Ford likely did tell the truth in her testimony, it is difficult to prove her credibility. However, it is also important to note the overwhelming inequality between men and women’s perceived believability. A man can simply angrily deny everything and be believed immediately while a woman is evaluated on how detailed she can recount her story and how well she picks her words. For Hill, her testimony was received especially poorly. This can be attributed to the stereotype of the lying, oversexed black women.

We need to actively abandon the myths we carry about both women and minorities.

So what does this mean for women, both white and of color, in modern society? How can we use the Kavanaugh hearings, as Anita Hill concluded in her talk, “a referendum of how we are going to move forward regardless of what the Senate Judiciary Committee does?” How can men and women help underrepresented voices be heard and be accounted for in policies? It begins with our generation, with the college students.

We need to actively abandon the myths we carry about both women and minorities. We need to always seek the full story, not leaving out parts that don’t fit well with the overall narrative of the idealized American college man. We need to include the narratives of all people in our policy discussions. Finally, we need to stop the spread of a culture of elitist virtue that exists on college campuses: we need to recognize that our actions here matter. This distorted understanding of meritocracy and personal virtue inhibit us from keeping individuals like Kavanaugh and Thomas accountable for their actions. The individuals who sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee for Ford’s testimony all knew how Hill was treated and how her testimony was disbelieved. And yet, 27 years later, they chose to disbelieve another woman’s testimony. In 27 years from now, we will be the ones who make up the Senate and we must learn from these mistakes to ensure we don’t make them again.

Klara Lou is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at klara.k.lou@vanderbilt.edu.

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