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Thank you Anita Hill

October 20, 2010

Nearly 20 years an African American woman spoke the truth in front of a bunch of white men with real, political power. I had never seen the hearings myself, having been too young to be considering either politics or my place in the workforce. I know, of course, what the general take from it was. I suppose that depends a little on your political bent as well. After reading how Clarence Thomas' wife left a phone message at Professor Hill's workplace asking her to "apologize" I decided to look into it a little more.
Back in 1991 you couldn't slip back into historical congressional testimony with a few clicks of the mouse, but now thanks to modern technology I can access a few snippets rolling around on YouTube. I am incredibly impressed with her poise in the interviews. She describes herself as being 24 at the time of the harassment. What a tender age for a young woman trying to find her way in a man's world, law. I'd like to think law is a little better now, but was surprised to see from the National Association of Women Lawyers that even though women have been entering law firms in near equal numbers to men (48%) for the last two decades, they do not move up at the same rate as men. The percentages of women at higher levels in law firms gets much lower very quickly, both from women not advancing and from women leaving law firms. A quick google search shows there's even more complaints that women's pay in law might not be keeping up with men either.
So I wasn't in the workplace in 1991 and can't compare. It was a nostalgia trip to see a young (and still weak and incompetent) Joe Biden as well as a younger Ted Kennedy, both allowing Arlen Spector to rant on (now there's someone who should apologize) while a confident, youngish African American woman kept full composure. If she was lying, why not make the complaints something The Menz could understand? A man trying to make excuses can see "So I was watching this porno last night, and I thought of you, and here's what they did…" as just idle talk. People who have experienced sexual harassment or bullying know it's never in a quotable obvious form. It never comes perfectly packaged with a bow on top that will help your HR department can that idiot. If it had been made up, it would have made better headlines. The truth isn't always pretty and hard to digest. But she was there, and still is. Being a strong, intelligent woman. I'd like to think little girls in 1991 saw her calm and poised testimony and could ignore the babbling talking heads just long enough to think maybe they could grow up to be like her. I know the workplace was changed from that moment on. Yes it's not perfect and still a work in progress. But it was a monumental step forward, on one woman's shoulders.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 4:46 pm

    There was an article in the local paper last week that talks about how for every maternity leave taken, women on average lose 3% in pay compared to not taking the leave. The length of leave isn't nearly as problematic as the number of leaves. In law firms, taking a leave means losing your client base and then having to rebuild that base when you return.I wonder how women lawyers fare once the stats is equalized for the effect from mat leave.

  2. October 20, 2010 8:17 pm

    I remember watching the coverage and thinking it was incredible, even though I was only in high school. My entire family was outraged by the whole thing and couldn't believe she didn't win the case. I have this sick little fantasy that the wife has reason to suspect Anita was telling the truth, and she was hoping to get Anita to make her feel better by saying it was all a big misunderstanding, or something? But I bet good old Clarence never stopped harassing his employees & probably had lots of affairs along the way. He could be having one right now. You make a great point though, and one I have to consider seriously now that I'm about twice as old as I was at the time when it happened. How many 24 year olds would have the guts to stand up for themselves she did? Not many. Not then, and definitely not now. The sad thing is, that's in part because in many ways her case served as a warning to younger women: don't stand up for yourself, you'll end up in court for years and your name will be dragged through the mud. And you can't win. My recent conversations with a few women lawyers (in various types of law) suggest that law is just as bad as science (and many other work environments). A lot of harassment, always written off as idle joking or too subtle to prove.

  3. October 22, 2010 5:18 am

    The exact phrase that a professor said to me when I was a student was seared into my skull that very moment because it stopped my heart cold. It was as if time stood still. I still remember. I had the fight-or-flight response kick in, and I fought. The whole event is clear all these years later.It was truly stunning to hear that asshole tell me and others that everything was a misunderstanding. I did not misunderstand ANYTHING. His words were crystal clear, along with his actions. I wrote my statement down, and as I was leaving, a woman came up running behind me to tell me how brave I was. She had been sitting in the waiting room. By that point I was shaking and holding back tears. She told me that I would be raked over the coals, and I was, by people I thought I could trust. Even when other women came forward, one with that same phrase the asshole said to me!, people still sneered at me for "causing trouble".You can't win. You lose people you thought were friends. You lose your mind thinking that you were wrong. You become paranoid about what people think they know. Everything gets dragged out long enough that your insides slowly rot. The only place I could quiet my mind was in church on weekday mornings where I could lay across the pews and stare at the light coming through the stained glass. I spent hours staring, trying to undo the depression and let go of the hurt. It's unfathomable to me to have the abominations that happened to Anita televised and scrutinized by a bumbling clusterfuck of fuckups. Every time I see the congressional shits grill a woman (Elizabeth Warren, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan….), I think of Anita Hill. She was the first woman I ever saw get grilled like that. Even being young, I picked up on the fact that all those assholes wanted to do was put her in her place. She held her own. It was such a loss in the end, but I hope she knows that women learned so much from her strength. jc

  4. October 22, 2010 4:52 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story jc. I'm sure that you too perhaps unknowingly served as a positive example to those around you at the time.

  5. October 25, 2010 8:24 pm

    I watched it in high school, and I was horrified when Thomas was confirmed. To me, it was a statement that it was perfectly acceptable to treat women like shit, at least as far as congress was concerned.In the intervening years, I unfortunately haven't seen much to counter that view.My history prof talked about it one day, saying that the problem was Hill was too much like a lawyer and not enough of a woman during those hearings. Her testimony was presented as a rational, objective lawyer and not like a woman who had been mistreated. That was his justification for why Thomas was sworn in.Which is, of course, complete BS.Thomas would have been sworn in, perhaps had he even physically raped her. The fact of the matter was that it was all the politicians scratching each other's backs. They wanted a black justice to succeed Marshall, and they were all guilty of similar slimy behavior. Nothing she could have done would have changed the outcome, and saying her composure was the problem is blaming the victim.I think things have gotten better since then…but stuff like this still happens a lot. And it still makes my blood boil.

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