In Other Words Tainted Wit­ness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives by Leigh Gil­more

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - by Leigh Gil­more, Columbia Univer­sity Press, 218 pages

Have you ever found your­self in con­ver­sa­tion with a gen­der- or race-stud­ies scholar and sud­denly felt way out of your depth, afraid of in­ad­ver­tently say­ing the wrong thing and re­veal­ing that you aren’t as “woke” as you should be, and have only just be­gun un­pack­ing your priv­i­lege? Read­ing Tainted Wit­ness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives is a bit like that.

Au­thor Leigh Gil­more isn’t just a gen­der-stud­ies ma­jor, she’s a pro­fes­sor of women’s and gen­der stud­ies who has taught at Har­vard Divin­ity School, Scripps Col­lege, and Brown Univer­sity, among other in­sti­tu­tions. She has writ­ten sev­eral books and pub­lished nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles on the com­plex­i­ties of the way women’s tes­ti­monies are warped when viewed through the lenses of race and gen­der.

Her book ex­am­ines the nar­ra­tives sur­round­ing noted women wit­nesses, in­clud­ing Anita Hill, Gu­atemalan in­dige­nous-rights ac­tivist Rigob­erta Menchú, and Oprah Win­frey, that il­lus­trate the in­sid­i­ous in­fil­tra­tion of sex­ism in places as di­verse as con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings, film doc­u­men­taries, and mem­oirs, along with the in­jus­tices that oc­cur when women’s tes­ti­mony about their own ex­pe­ri­ences is tainted by the mo­tives and bi­ases of those who con­trol the set­ting in which they de­liver it.

Gil­more’s book — a tome of 218 pages of dense prose, which in­cludes 51 pages of ac­knowl­edg­ments, an in­tro­duc­tion, notes, a bib­li­og­ra­phy, and an in­dex — may be daunt­ing for a reader not versed in the lingo of aca­demic fem­i­nist dis­course. Rife with 75-cent words — “paradig­matic,” neo­con­fes­sional,” and “jux­tapo­lit­i­cal,” to name a few — and packed with sen­tences that rou­tinely ex­ceed 50 words, the book is not as ac­ces­si­ble as it could be. There is some en­light­en­ing anal­y­sis here, but a layper­son will have to work to un­der­stand it by keep­ing a dic­tio­nary nearby and be­ing will­ing to read and reread to glean the mean­ing of pas­sages such as: “Un­like tes­ti­mo­ni­als that bear wit­ness to hu­man’s rights abuses and are more di­rectly po­lit­i­cal in their aims, the neo­con­fes­sional pri­mar­ily bears wit­ness to per­sonal pain that can be over­come and re­deemed. By lo­cat­ing the cause, ex­pe­ri­ence and end of suf­fer­ing within the frame­work, of the in­di­vid­ual rather than in his­to­ries of vi­o­lence that re­quire po­lit­i­cal cri­tique and le­gal and so­cial reme­dies, and that com­pel read­ers to ne­go­ti­ate acts of wit­ness­ing, ne­olib­eral life nar­ra­tives dis­place the anal­y­sis of wrong­do­ing away from ques­tions of jus­tice.”

Gil­more dis­sects these sto­ries of her star wit­nesses with the clar­ity of hind­sight, con­nect­ing the dots in re­verse to show the myr­iad ways racism and sex­ism are used to dis­arm women and di­lute the power of their tes­ti­monies. One of her cen­tral ex­am­ples is the case of Anita Hill — the at­tor­ney who tes­ti­fied at Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas’ con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings in 1991 that Thomas sex­u­ally ha­rassed her when he was her su­pe­rior at the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion. Gil­more points out that ev­ery­body’s fa­vorite for­mer vice pres­i­dent, Joe Bi­den, then a se­na­tor chair­ing the hear­ings be­fore the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, opted not to per­mit the tes­ti­mony of cor­rob­o­rat­ing wit­nesses who waited outside the court­room to be called to the stand.

Thomas de­nied sex­u­ally ha­rass­ing Hill through re­peated un­wel­come ad­vances and in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual com­ments in the work­place — and was al­lowed to refuse to com­ment on it, Gil­more writes. But Hill was ques­tioned at length about the vul­gar lan­guage Thomas had al­legedly used, and was forced to re­peat phrases such as the in­fa­mous line, “Who has put a pu­bic hair on my Coke?” in front of an all-white, all-male panel with her fam­ily sit­ting be­hind her in the au­di­ence.

Hill was por­trayed as a “know­able en­emy, a fem­i­nist,” ac­cord­ing to Gil­more — a woman who could have her own per­sonal rea­sons, in­clud­ing un­re­quited ro­man­tic de­sire or po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion for ac­cus­ing Thomas, Gil­more writes, while Thomas’ sup­port­ers pointed to the lack of cor­rob­o­rat­ing tes­ti­mony as proof that Hill was ly­ing. The ploy worked in the short term. In Oc­to­ber 1991, Thomas was con­firmed by a nar­row mar­gin of 52 to 48.

But, Gil­more writes, the frame­work that Thomas’ han­dlers con­structed to dis­credit Hill didn’t stand the test of time. Three years later, jour­nal­ists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson pub­lished a 400-page book ti­tled Strange Jus­tice: The Sell­ing of Clarence

Thomas (Houghton Mif­flin), which con­cluded “that the bal­ance of be­liev­abil­ity on the facts brought to light in the aftermath of the hear­ing goes to Anita Hill,” ac­cord­ing to Gil­more. “The nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of their anal­y­sis is that Thomas per­jured him­self dur­ing his nom­i­na­tion hear­ings.”

Gil­more has reached valu­able in­sights worth know­ing, but risks hav­ing them go undis­cov­ered by the read­ers who can’t slog through her at-times in­scrutable writ­ing. Nev­er­the­less, women in par­tic­u­lar should read this book — if only to be as pre­pared as pos­si­ble to con­tinue re­sist­ing plots to marginal­ize us. — Phae­dra Hay­wood

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