WOMEN
04/15/2016 01:58 pm ET

Why Anita Hill’s 1991 Testimony Is So Haunting Today

A lot has changed in 25 years. And yet...

Getty Images/HBO
(L) Anita Hill in 1991. (R) Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in HBO's "Confirmation" in 2016.

In October 1991, 35-year-old law professor Anita Hill sat in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee to testify about the sexual harassment she said she had experienced while working for Clarence Thomas, who was waiting to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

For three days, millions of Americans watched the hearings that were broadcasted on live TV. They heard Hill describe the sexually explicit comments she was subjected to in the workplace, and they watched an all-male, all-white panel question her every word.

Thomas, for his part, called the entire process a "high-tech lynching." 

The testimony, described in a 1991 Newsweek story as "an X-rated spectacle that was repulsive and irresistible at the same time," did not stop Thomas from being confirmed to the Supreme Court. But it did bring public attention to the widespread issue of sexual harassment -- and signaled just how ill-equipped a Senate almost exclusively made up of white men was to deal with it.

HBO's new film, "Confirmation," re-examines the events of those hearings, making it very clear the progress we've made since -- and the progress we haven't. 

HBO/AP
(L) Wendall Pierce as Justice Clarence Thomas in "Confirmation." (R) Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Hill's impact was tangible. Her testimony set off a greater national understanding of what sexual harassment looks like in the workplace, pushing employers to institute trainings on the subject. In 1991, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, where Hill had worked under Thomas) reported 3,349 charges filed alleging sexual harassment. In 1992, that number shot up to 5,607.

The stark image of Hill being harangued by a panel of white men also helped usher in the "Year of the Woman." In 1992, four women were elected to the Senate, bringing the grand total to a (sadly historical) six, and the number of women in the House rose from 28 to 47. The ranks of women in both the House and Senate have continued to grow, though today women still make up just 19.4 percent of Congress.

“I would not be a United States Senator today if it weren’t for the courage of Anita Hill," Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was a Congresswoman in 1991 and was elected to the Senate in 1992, told The Huffington Post. 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
The white men of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.

"[Hill's testimony] was one of those incredible change moments for an awful lot of women who sat there and said, 'Wait a minute -- all these progressive men on this panel are just sitting there sucking their thumbs!,'" said former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who, along with Boxer, charged up to the Senate to demand her male colleagues take Hill's allegations seriously.

In the 25 years that have passed since Hill's testimony, we have developed a greater breadth of language with which to articulate the complexities of sexual harassment and assault on the national stage. We have social media platforms where women and men can elevate their voices with the click of a button online. Perhaps #IStandWithAnita would trend on Twitter if the Hill testimony occurred today?

But HBO's two-hour film also focuses on themes that feel hauntingly current, like slut-shaming and victim-blaming. It brings up the uncomfortable reality of how powerful men often treat the women around them, and the problematic lack of gender and racial diversity in government.

Hill was ripped apart by the Judiciary Committee during her testimony, specifically its GOP members. She had her private sex life framed as suspect -- Sen. John Danforth suggested Hill might have "erotomania," a condition where an individual harbors a delusion that someone more powerful is in love with her.

Her behavior during and following the harassment was used against her. Hill had followed Thomas from the Department of Education to the EEOC, and had not formally reported either bout of sexual harassment. This led Sen. Arlen Specter to wonder, "How could [Hill] allow this kind of reprehensible behavior to go on without doing something about it?" And at one point during the hearings, Sen. Alan K. Simpson asked Hill, "If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name, when he left his position of power or status or authority over you -- and you left it in 1983 -- why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?"

Watch a clip from "Confirmation" in which Hill (Kerry Washington) is interrogated by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (Peter McRobbie):

Hill was also torn apart by elements of the press and general public. Pundit David Brock infamously described Hill as "a little bit nutty and a little slutty." And as Hill told the NYTimes in October 1991, she faced consistent harassment as a result of her testimony:

I think that it is very difficult for a number of males to see that [sexual harassment] is a real issue. And let me tell you about a phone call I had right before I got here. I had a call from a male who identified himself by name, and also identified himself as associated with a national organization, a civil rights organization, and he said to me that Clarence Thomas was only acting the way any man would act with a woman.

...I have received other harassing phone calls, mostly they're messages on my machine where males have made jokes about this, and then that one unfortunate call where an individual was very forceful that this was only normal male behavior, which I think insults all of you men in the room.

The commentary that surrounded Hill was patently awful, but it doesn't sound so different from what we hear today when women accuse powerful men of sexual harassment or assault. Bill Cosby's accusers have faced significant vitriol for coming forward decades after being assaulted. The judge in the Jian Ghomeshi case dismissed the victims' claims as being "tainted from outright deception." Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz was criticized heavily for communicating with her alleged rapist after the assault had occurred. Women (and men) still face an inordinate pressure to appear as "perfect victims" if they make their experiences public and want to be believed.

We still live in a country with a legal system that is, at times, ill-equipped to handle the aftermath of sexual harassment and violence, and an atmosphere in which victims are still reticent to speak up, because they know the costs are often far greater than the rewards.

Desiree Navarro via Getty Images
Kerry Washington and Anita Hill attend a panel discussion in New York City this month.

As Rebecca Traister wrote in NYMag, reflecting on the recent public re-examination of the sexism O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, as well as Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, and, to some extent, Hillary Clinton, faced in the '90s: "I suspect that it’s an unconscious awareness of our contemporary hang-ups that prompts us to chew on the past."

When it comes to the treatment of women in 2016, our "hang-ups" are still many. But if Hill's legacy, and its retelling in "Confirmation" can drive one thing home, it's that there is power in speaking up.

"What good have we done?," asks Kerry Washington as Hill towards the end of "Confirmation." Twenty-five years later, we can safely say, a whole lot.

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