Believing Anita Hill

Posted in: Book Reviews

I believed Anita Hill in 1991, when she testified about her sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas. Accordingly, I asked my Senator to vote against Thomas’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. He won that Senate vote, however, 52-48. Today people are asking if we have moved into the era of the Thomas Court.

Thirty years later, it remains a good time to listen to Anita Hill, who has just published a book called Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence (Viking, 2021). She reminds us of many things we still have not quite believed about women’s rights and gender-based violence. Serious harms to women continue to occur after Hill’s hearing with Thomas, and after Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 accusations of sexual assault against now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Hill teaches us about much of that history of gender violence in this excellent book.

Do You Believe It Happens?

Do you really believe that one in four women undergoes sexual harassment and abuse in ways that harm her career and family lives? You should believe it, but Hill explains that people often fail to listen and learn about it. She reminds us, “When we gather the emotional courage to ask the right questions, listen for the answers, and believe survivors, we learn that gender-based violence happens to our acquaintances, colleagues, friends, and yes, family members. It occurs at our workplaces, on the streets, in our homes, and in the military.” (p. 6) Too often, Hill explains, people, including the courts, have not heard and believed the stories of abuse. Women of color suffer even higher rates of abuse than white women. Moreover, Native American women have a long history of being raped as part of their abuse. The government did little to help them, ignoring their abuse in the schools and elsewhere instead of offering them protection.

Not understanding or challenging these actions leaves in place a “gender hierarchy that values men over women.” Really? Yes. The “foot on women’s necks” (p. 8) is the strong belief that all those sexual interactions are just natural, the way men express their normal feelings for women.

The bad behavior has continued over the last thirty years. Hill notes the “egregious serial violations” of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse cases and the charges of sexual abuse against Jeffrey Epstein, which went “unaddressed for years.” (p. 11). Why unaddressed? Because the law has not been strong enough to support the victims instead of the abusers. Hill explains we need a culture change that will support real equality.

It Is Worse Than You Think

Hill explains how the male hierarchy has been supported by the constant denial of women’s abuse. Employers protect their companies instead of their employees. The courts heard cases and ignored the violence that women had suffered. Courts frequently thought women’s injuries did not really matter, basing their reasoning on “what they presumed were natural inequalities—men naturally demanding sex and women having to comply or move on to other jobs.” (p. 28). Hill asks us to get back the protection of Title VII civil rights that the Court took away. Women themselves denied their abuse in order to promote their own survival; “we deny our pain to keep living.” (p. 39).

Do you think young people understand all this? There is a “myth of the woke generation,” because harm still occurs there. The beloved Internet can make things worse as well, providing new tools for “sexist and violent messages.” (p. 78).

All industries contribute to “generations schooled in gender hierarchy.” (p. 82). Even I was surprised to read some of Hill’s details, to discover how constant and ongoing the suffering is. She shows how the “natural” is often abusive of the powerless, both girls and boys. Victims with disabilities also suffer. The “tech industry is known for a ‘bro culture.’” (p. 144). The food industry does not protect its members. High tech and high finance do no better. Hill reminds us of the history of seeing active women as villains: “Back then, in 1972, [Equal Rights Act] proponents were cast as man-hating lesbians out to destroy family life.” (p. 99)

Such an environment does not “magically disappear.” (p. 76). Instead of questioning it, we and the courts repeatedly “accept brutal behavior” (p. 101) as normal. Hill wants us to change that.

All Victims

One of the results of such repeated violence is that some victims commit suicide because they can no longer endure the pain. The suicides are denied and ignored as the powerful continue in their own abusive routines. There is sexual violence in schools and universities. Faculty and institutions keep the power while the victims are ignored. There is the repeated statement that “to get ahead in her career, one must sleep with a powerful man.” (p. 127).

Do you need an example to persuade you? Larry Nassar, that powerful doctor who abused so many athletes and was long unquestionably supported by his employers, even though the victims had complained. I admire the survivors who spoke up to convict Nassar, but also realize they suffered so long because of the constant gender harassment that Hill describes in this book.

Hill notes that too often, Black and Brown girls, lesbian, gay, trans, queer, and bisexual people are both abused and ignored more often than Whites. After all these years, there is still a gender pay gap, which “falls most heavily on women of color. Latinx women, for example, make only fifty-five cents for every dollar a White man makes.” (p. 173).

Victims suffer a lot, and the “men they accused, meanwhile, did quite well.” (p. 155). The men who supported the victims also suffered. “Two such men lost high-paying jobs in the industry after testifying on behalf of women. One is now a handyman; the other is an emergency responder.” (p. 155).

Political Women Suffer from This Too

Gender violence affects our politics as well as our families, our work, and the military. “Rather than offering an opportunity to showcase our achievements, recurring questions about credentials are lobbed at women candidates to knock them out of running for public offices.” (p. 165). Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, called attention to gender violence, but the issue was ignored and her valuable focus did not help her presidential campaign. Then came President Trump, “a man who has been called out for alleged sexual abuse by multiple women and who has bragged about his entitlement to sexually assault women.” (p. 205). That president especially targeted Black women journalists.

Hill reminds us how racism and misogyny work together to harm civil rights. Gender violence happens no matter what the circumstances are, including all the harms that were increased by the pandemic.

I always teach United States v. Morrison in my constitutional law class, where we view it as just another example of the Court’s teaching on Congress’s commerce powers. Hill makes its message more direct. In that case, Rehnquist taught “women’s contributions to commerce and the interference to commerce caused by gender violence were inconsequential.” (p. 198). Such reasoning is a “blatant denial of women’s worth.” (p. 199). I did notice that Justice Thomas provided the fifth vote in this 5-4 opinion. Hill urges us and Congress to take back the Violence Against Women Act from the Supreme Court.

This abuse of women undermines all democracy and our ability to exercise our rights. We need to do much more to stop it.

What Can We Do Now?

Hill urges us to “break walls of silence” around abuse (p. 219). She warns of the power that non-disclosure agreements and arbitration have given to employers instead of employees.

And “we’re still waiting for a president who will lead an anti-gender-violence agenda.” (p. 292). Hill thinks President Biden, who as Senator chaired Thomas’s confirmation hearing, should have a commission coordinator to report on gender violence. He should ask departments and agencies to develop new initiatives aimed at ending violence against women. New policies and new perspectives.

As to the committee that heard her complaints about Thomas? It “failed its obligation to the public” (p. 33) when it did not call fellow employees or experts on sexual harassment. Incredibly, that happened again with Justice Kavanaugh’s hearing. Both of these events compose part of the repeated denial of the reality of women’s experience. This is why Hill talks of “our resolve to make sure that what happened in 1991 and 2018 doesn’t happen again” (p. 60).

Hill’s book reminds me that, despite my work with CHILD USA on behalf of victims of abuse, the record on gender violence is even worse than what I already knew. She convinces me to join with her because “together we can end gender violence” (p. 306). You can join us too!

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