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