The Oklahoman

30 years later, Hill still waits for change

- Jocelyn Noveck Hill

America had yet to really understand sexual harassment when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas in front of an all-male Senate panel in October 1991. He was confirmed to the Supreme Court anyway, but Hill’s work was just beginning.

Now, three decades later, what does 65-year-old Hill wish she could have told 35-year-old Hill, the young professor in the bright blue suit who testified calmly and deliberate­ly

that day but had utterly no idea what lay ahead?

“I wish I had known then that the work would take a long time,” she says now. “That I should be patient – diligent, but patient.” As a lawyer, she had thought institutio­ns would do their job, she says. “What I wasn’t understand­ing was our culture of denial.”

It’s safe to say the soft-spoken Hill, an exceedingl­y private person who has spent her entire adult life in the classroom, didn’t grow up planning to become an activist. But the Thomas hearings set her on a different path, and when the #MeToo reckoning exploded in 2017, she was automatica­lly a potent symbol. She still teaches gender, race and law at Brandeis University and also chairs the Hollywood Commission, which fights harassment in the entertainm­ent industry, along with other advocacy work.

So it seems appropriat­e that Hill’s latest project is one that combines her paths of academia and activism. Her new book, “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence,” is a heavily researched look at gender violence – tracing its roots, measuring its impact, and suggesting ways to fight it.

Sitting down last week with The Associated Press to discuss the book – her third – Hill said the project gained urgency in early 2020 as the pandemic took hold. She was disturbed to hear that intimate partner violence had surged in the early days of the pandemic.

Through a mix of academic studies, legal analysis, anecdotes and interviews, Hill looks at different spheres of society and finds that although there’s surely a better understand­ing of sexual harassment and gender violence now than three decades ago – when Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson referred at the hearing to “that sexual harassment crap” – there’s a lack of comprehens­ion of how deeply rooted the problems are.

She also says it’s unrealisti­c to expect a younger generation’s more evolved values will be enough to eradicate gender violence, an idea she calls “the myth of the woke generation.” First of all, beliefs in any generation are mixed, but also, it’s the institutio­ns and systems that need to change, she says.

“It’s really dangerous for us to think that gender violence is not a huge problem, that it is not a problem that’s affecting (all of us),” Hill says. “There’s probably not anyone who doesn’t have a story about something that happened to them or to someone they know.”

And, she says, despite the power of millions of #MeToo tweets sharing such experience­s that launched the movement in 2017, a year later at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing, “Christine Blasey Ford testified about her own experience with sexual assault … and the Senate seemed to refuse to even do a thorough investigat­ion. So, it is endemic and it’s systemic.” And men can experience gender violence as well, she points out – often when they don’t conform to convention­al notions of masculinit­y or gender expression.

Her reference to Ford’s testimony in the book is especially poignant. On the day Ford, a fellow academic, testified, Hill was watching from far off at the University of Utah, where she was speaking to a women’s studies class. But they met a year later. Hill says they share a unique bond.

“She and I are the two people in the world who have gone through it,” she says. “I knew this was going to change her life forever, and wanted to hear from her just on a personal basis, how things were going, how she was handling it, and to reassure her things would get better.”

One thing Hill can identify with only too well: the condemnati­on and threats that Ford received. “Certainly there were years that I felt threatened,” Hill says. “I felt fortunate that I didn’t have children … I did have elderly parents that I feared for and felt very protective of.”

She got through it, she says, “by just being out in the world, not hiding from it, going out and doing public speaking, being engaged.” And by listening to victims’ stories – “knowing that there was something bigger and something more important, and that I could make a difference in the lives of the people who were suffering.”

What Hill has learned, she says, is that attitudes may have evolved, but systems and institutio­ns haven’t kept pace. “It’s not enough for us as a society to change,” she says. “If we keep the same systems in place, the problem’s going to keep repeating itself.”

She is, though, buoyed by what she calls the thorough investigat­ion conducted by New York Attorney General Letitia James into accusation­s of harassment against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which led to his resignatio­n. That probe, she says, should serve as “a model” for future such cases.

Hill is also concerned about the dual impact of racism and sexism, and the intersecti­on of two struggles that she, like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, feels need to be addressed together. She points out that statistics show “the risk of being a victim of gender violence is enhanced depending on your race. How can you resolve that problem without looking at both? You cannot resolve the problems that women of color face unless you’re attending to the problem of racism in this country.”

Another point Hill addresses in her book: the long-awaited apology offered her in 2019 by Joe Biden, who had chaired a skeptical Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when she testified that Thomas had harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunit­y Commission. Hill has said the committee refused to seriously examine her accusation­s and, crucially, did not allow testimony from other potential witnesses.

Hill jokes in the book that she and her husband used to say, when their doorbell would ring in Massachuse­tts, that it was Biden coming to apologize. When he finally called just before entering the presidenti­al campaign, she writes that she asked him to to take on, as a calling, ending gender-based violence.

“I’m not sure he heard me,” she writes. But Hill has hopes that Biden, now that he is the president, can make good on her request. “I believe that President Biden has a special role in the history of these issues that that gives him an opportunit­y to make good on his responsibi­lities,” she says now.

Asked whether she actually expects it to happen, Hill replies: “I’m always a very hopeful person.” But, she adds, “I will continue to advocate whether it’s this president or the next president. That is something that I imagine I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.”

“It’s really dangerous for us to think that gender violence is not a huge problem, that it is not a problem that’s affecting (all of us).” Anita Hill Professor of gender, race and law at Brandeis University

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 ?? AP ?? In this file photo, Anita Hill testifies on the nomination of Clarence Thomas on Oct. 11, 1991. America had yet to really understand sexual harassment when Hill testified in front of the all-male Senate panel.
AP In this file photo, Anita Hill testifies on the nomination of Clarence Thomas on Oct. 11, 1991. America had yet to really understand sexual harassment when Hill testified in front of the all-male Senate panel.

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