Nothing to apologize for

October 26, 2010

Elizabeth Schulte wants to know what exactly Anita Hill should be sorry about?

VIRGINIA THOMAS probably thought she was doing the conservative cause a favor by calling up Anita Hill the other day and asking for her to apologize for accusing Thomas' husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment 19 years ago.

For conservative activists, Hill's testimony at Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearing in 1991 is looked upon as just another example of "liberal excess"--a case of an oversensitive and/or politically motivated woman charging sexism against an innocent right-winger.

So after nearly two decades, can't she just admit her mistake and let bygones be bygones?

Hell no.

For people who take sexual harassment and sexism seriously, Anita Hill's testimony--and the conservative smear campaign mobilized against her--are just as instructive now as they were then.

Anita Hill testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee
Anita Hill testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee

In October 1991, Hill, who was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma at the time, recounted to the Senate Judiciary Committee a series of sickening incidents of harassment that took place when she worked for Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the 1980s.

Her testimony included a stomach-turning litany of Thomas' repeated and unwanted sexual advances and explicit discussions of sex, such as "acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes." She began her testimony with these words:

What happened next and telling the world about it are the two most difficult things--experiences of my life. It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and sleepless number--a great number of sleepless nights that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends.

And what did she get for stepping forward? Subsequently, it was Hill, not Thomas, who became the target of Senate questioning.

In televised hearings viewed by millions of Americans, Republican senators--all of them white men--grilled Hill, a Black woman, for days. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said that he thought that Hill's "fantasies" about Thomas' interest in her were due to the fact that "she was having a problem being rejected by men she was attracted to."

A former aide to Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) and a staffer at the EEOC was brought in to claim that Hill was testifying because she wanted to turn the experience into a book or movie--she wanted to be "the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment," the aide said. Another witness postulated that Hill was engaged in "transference," a psychological condition where you transfer your feelings about one person to someone else.

Over and again, not just Hill but the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace was treated as if it were a joke.

And the Democratic senators on the committee, including its chair Joe Biden, sat by and let Hill get raked over the coals. They allowed Thomas to avoid answering any charges. Hill was even asked to take a two-hour lie-detector test, which she passed.

The media chimed in with its indictment of Hill. In March 1992, the American Spectator published a hit job on Hill by David Brock, including a sexist reference to her as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." A decade later, Brock would confess that his characterization of Hill was mostly made up. But Brock's "The Real Anita Hill," and his later book of the same name, fueled the conservative attack dogs.

DURING THIS period, conservative politicians and pundits--from right-wing Nazi lover Pat Buchanan to President George H.W. Bush--had mastered the politics of blaming the victim. They attempted, not just in their rhetoric but in government policies, to turn upside-down any of the existing social and political gains of the 1960s and 1970s.

So according to their logic, women and Blacks who benefited from affirmative action were the real sexists and racists, and white men were the victims of "reverse discrimination." Poor people and children who relied on public assistance were milking the system. Or as Thomas said disdainfully of his own sister, who was on welfare for six months while she took care of a sick relative, "She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check."

By the same upside-down logic of the conservatives, women who charged their abusers with sexual harassment were themselves the harassers.

The conservative backlash succeeded in many ways. It transformed the way that many people thought about social programs like affirmative action and welfare. It shifted blame away from the people at the top of society and downward onto the most vulnerable.

There was, however, another response to Anita Hill's testimony. Afterward, her mailbox was flooded each day with letters from thousands of women who identified with the experiences and feelings Hill had spoken out about, and supported her decision to step forward. Undoubtedly, many of them also recognized the way that the senators had treated Hill.

As Hill later described this groundswell of support:

People of all ages, races and backgrounds wrote. Just about every category of person imaginable who had seen, heard or read about the hearing took time to put their reactions into words...most were from strangers expressing their concern about what they had witnessed. "This is the first time I have ever written a public figure," many began.

The letters spelled out a huge range of emotion, from sympathy to anger to joy. Many writers were outraged at what they considered insensitivity on the part of certain senators, or frustrated by the unsatisfactory resolution of the issue. Many had experienced sexual harassment firsthand. Many more related to sexual harassment as a violation of basic human dignity. Some decried the way that politics had pervaded the judicial appointment process. Others were deeply concerned about the quality of political representation evidenced by the behavior of the senators on the Judiciary Committee.

Each letter in its own way established a link between the writer and me. We had a common experience so potent as to create a bond between total strangers. "I feel like I know you," many wrote.

The hearing raised wider public awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. In 1992, a year after Hill's testimony, the EEOC reported a 50 percent increase in complaints filed for harassment over the year before.

Today, as Virginia Thomas leaves her apology requests on Anita Hill's answering machine, there are those who say we should "move on."

But this is hardly the time to move on. Sexual harassment still stalks America's workplaces--and it often goes unchallenged among workers who fear losing their jobs or being deported, if they complain. This harassment goes hand in hand with other forms of discrimination that relegate women workers to an unequal status--lower pay, fewer health care benefits, little access to dependable or affordable child care.

Right-wingers like Virginia Thomas want us to "move on" and apologize for taking on the sexism. We say, no thanks.

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