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Anita Hill on ending gender violence: We need to ‘challenge the system’

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Anita Hill joins A Time For Change to discuss the Senate testimony she gave 30 years ago, the aftermath of the hearing, and her new book, "Believing."

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Hi, everybody, and welcome to A Time for Change. I'm Alexis Christoforous here with Sibile Marcellus. This month marks 30 years since attorney Anita Hill testified during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, telling a Senate Judiciary Committee and the world that Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together, allegations that Thomas denied. Hill's testimony given before 14 white male senators lasted three days.

ANITA HILL: I have no personal vendetta against Clarence Thomas. I seek only to provide the committee with information which it may regard as relevant. It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. It took no initiative to inform anyone. I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Anita Hill is now a professor of social policy, law, and women's gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. She's also the author of a new book, Believing, 30 year journey to end gender violence. We talked to her about her new book and how testifying before Congress changed the trajectory of her life.

ANITA HILL: I can't think of anything that I would do differently right now about my testimony. What I would do differently about the process is something that I've written about, and I think about a lot. For example, I would have a process. I would have a process that was clear that I knew exactly what I was going into before it happened, that I would know even before I sent in my statement where it was going to go, who was going to see it on the committee, what kind of opportunity that I would have to respond or what opportunity other people would have to testify. And what we had was a process that was far less than clear, seemed to be evolving the whole time, and that excluded witnesses, and so that would be my correction.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: After the hearings, Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. How did that impact your life and career pursuits?

ANITA HILL: Yeah, I'm not sure that his confirmation actually changed my career. I think what happened was the public responded to a system or a process in terms of the hearing that vehemently vilified me. And I think that was the source of any changes that came about, but basically I ended up leaving my job at the University of Oklahoma. The job was threatened before I left.

It was clear that there was a great deal of hostility against me coming from state legislators. It wasn't universal, but it was enough to change the culture and environment that I worked in. And I ultimately left, though, because I wanted to do more with the issue of sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination and violence.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: You know, Anita Clarence Thomas used that now infamous term, high-tech lynching, following your testimony back in 1991. And in many ways, that language not only turned him into a victim, but it also sort of stopped a lot of the open conversation around sexual harassment. Do you think his choice of language actually impacted progress for women at the time?

ANITA HILL: I think it was used to provide cover for his own bad behavior. I think it was a misplaced metaphor because he was not only claiming his victimhood, he was claiming his victimhood as a victim of racism. To have that launched in the context in which it did was really insincere, and not only did it provide a cover for him, it went on to provide a cover for others, who would use the same metaphor.

And did, in fact, I think, stifled a conversation at that moment, but then almost immediately after, a group of women-- African-American women, In Defense Of Ourselves is what they called themselves, they helped clarify the fact that in the history of lynching no man of any race had been lynched on the basis of the word of a Black woman. So the lynching metaphor was his cover, but it was also used as a weapon to exclude me from the experiences of African-American women historically, and that continue on today. If you look at the R. Kelly trial, it took 30 years nearly to get his victims to be heard, all of whom were Black women and who were dismissed for 30 years, and then ultimately there was some gender justice found for those victims. So it's been a long time coming, but I think we're starting to understand that those kinds of excuses do not represent our best interests.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And let's talk about the role of President Biden during those hearings. So at the time, he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Now he has since called you to apologize for what you went through, but now that Biden is president, is there more that he should be doing on the issue of sexual harassment?

ANITA HILL: Well, and this is absolutely the reason that I am here today, and the reason that I wrote the book Believing. We are 30 years out of 1991, and yes, there were mistakes made. But the problem today of gender violence of all forms, and I talk about them in the book, whether it's sexual harassment, or intimate partner violence, or bullying in schools, the problem is that it still exists. It continues.

We set a bad precedent in the 1991 hearing, but that doesn't alleviate anyone from the responsibility from doing something about what is going on in our workplaces, in our schools, in our universities, and on the streets and in our homes today.

I think the president has not only the ability to change course with this problem and commit to addressing it, I think he has the responsibility to do so.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: It's been 30 years since Hill testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee alleging that she was sexually harassed by then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She has devoted her career to the fight against gender violence and taken a closer look at what corporate America is doing, and in some cases, not doing about sexual harassment. We talked to her about her work, and about what inspired her to write her new book, Believing-- Our 30 Year Journey, to end gender violence.

ANITA HILL: Well, first of all, it is drawn from hearing thousands-- literally thousands of survivors and victims, and believing that they deserve better. From our leaders, from our institutions, from friends and colleagues, who often dismiss charges out of hand without even a fair chance at a hearing, or they deny them altogether, or they deny the harm that is caused.

We are just now beginning to understand this, and I know that much of your audience is a business audience. What we know for certain is that there is a huge loss of personal, health loss, productivity loss in businesses. There is an economic loss because of the loss in productivity, and for all kinds of reasons. I know that businesses tend to run looking at risk and cost, but for all kinds of reasons. These issues need to be addressed by our business leaders as well as issues that, if addressed, can make much more productive and effective operations in cultures and climates within our organization. So we aren't there yet, but we need to, very much, understand that the problems of sexual harassment are not going to go on their way on their own.

We need to understand that what we have now in many places and many organizations are systems that fail to address the problems and that we need to take a hard look within our organizations to make sure that we are doing everything we can to keep people safe.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And Anita, speaking more about that, you wrote, quote, Each of us has a role to play in making our world safe for everyone and that together, we can end gender violence. How do we end sexual harassment and gender violence?

ANITA HILL: We've got to acknowledge it and really challenge the systems that we now have in place. Many of them are truly set up to put all of the burden of change on victims who have been vulnerable. Many of them you know, are so costly or so obtuse that people don't have any idea of how to navigate them. Workers don't have an idea of how to navigate them, and then when they find out, they realize that it's too costly, especially if you're a low income worker. We set up systems that make the risk of losing jobs so high that they can't afford to complain even.

And then finally, one other thing that we-- and this is not the final thing, but just for today, one thing that we've got to address is retaliation against people who make claims. Their rights are being violated when they do so, but that doesn't stop people within organizations or retaliating against people once they've reached over all of the hurdles and raise complaints, gone through the proper processes in the way that they are told they have to, then they face retaliation for doing so, for complying with the rules.

And so those are just three areas. Acknowledge the problem. Make their systems transparent. Have full investigations, and stop the retaliation. All of this has to happen, though, at the leadership level. It has to start at the top. We know that about organizational change of all kinds, and if you're going to change our organizations, we have to have leaders on board and demanding that change.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And what about corporate America specifically? What can companies and the men and women inside them do to end sexual harassment?

ANITA HILL: Well, I think I laid it out, first of all, leadership has to acknowledge that exist and that it's hurting, not only the employees, but especially the employees and workers throughout their organizations, whether they're direct victims or no, but secondly, they must acknowledge that it is hurting productivity and the effectiveness that people can have in the workplace it's costing them money. And so that's one thing that we need to start with-- leadership acknowledgment of the problem and prioritizing solutions.

Leaders can also bring in consultation to develop whatever the solutions are, whatever the processes are, bring in survivors and victims to help them craft solutions that will work. So often now, the stories that I hear are that the solutions that come in are there to protect the people who are in power.

The Hollywood Commission, which I chair, has done a survey, and this was just-- we just closed the survey early 2020. But what we found was that people still doubt. A majority of the people, the workers in Hollywood, and the entertainment industry, the majority of them felt that there would be no accountability for bad behavior if the person who is accused and found guilty or to have committed abuse, is a person with higher power and authority than the person who is the accuser.

So this was across the board. People of all genders, people of all statuses, just didn't feel that there would be accountability. And leaders have to change that message, and they have to change what is a gap in trust between the people who are working and those who are leading.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And that was Brandeis University professor Anita Hill, author of the new book Believing-- Our 30 Year journey to end gender violence.