Prof. Anita Hill (HS) and Kerry Washington sit down to discuss the Thomas/Hill hearings and the forthcoming film adaptation
“She’s worth standing for,” laughed Kerry Washington as the packed Wasserman Cinematheque rose to their feet for the second time, welcoming University Professor Anita Hill (HS) into the room.
They previously stood for Washington herself, who first gained widespread fame for her role as Olivia Pope in ABC’s hit television series “Scandal.”
Washington visited campus on Sunday afternoon to talk about the upcoming HBO film “Confirmation,” in which she portrays Hill. The event, “A Conversation with Anita Hill and Kerry Washington,” was hosted by the Film, Television and Interactive Media Program and organized by department chair Prof. Alice Kelikian (HIST).
During the event, Hill and Washington first discussed issues pertaining to the famous 1991 Thomas/Hill hearings and then answered audience questions.
Topics like sexual harassment in the workplace, the role of race and gender in politics, diversity and sexuality on college campuses and the role of media in the disenfranchisement of certain groups were examined at length by Washington and Hill in the context of the film and their own lives.
On April 16 at 8 p.m., HBO will air the movie “Confirmation,” starring Washington. Washington, who is also an executive producer of the film, emphasized her desire to share this story so these issues would be once again brought into the media foreground. She explained to the audience that while HBO has been supportive of her efforts to produce this film, it was her own initiative that made it possible. No one was considering telling Hill’s story, and Washington didn’t want to wait for an invitation to be a part of something. “I have to be telling the stories. I don’t just want to sit at the table; I want to make the table — I want to create the table,” Washington said.
The story itself is approaching its 25th anniversary. In 1991 Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Thomas’ confirmation was met with political controversy, but it wasn’t until the end of the confirmation hearings that Hill’s testimony was publicized. Hill worked for Thomas as an attorney for the Department of Education. It was there, she testified, that he repeatedly sexually harassed her despite her best attempts to divert the unwanted attention.
Following this testimony, Hill faced an incredible amount of backlash, and many Thomas supporters argued that Hill was lying.
In October of 1991, Thomas was appointed as a Supreme Court Justice. Yet all of the publicity surrounding the hearings brought sexual harassment to the forefront of national interest and opened a dialogue to discuss the role of gender and sex in the workplace.
When asked by an audience member if she felt the hearings would have gone differently if presented to a more diverse Senate, Hill said she thought the conversation would have been “entirely different.” She stressed the importance of diversity, responding, “It’s not about getting different bodies in with different body parts, it’s really about getting different bodies in with different experiences and who are willing to understand and vocalize those experiences through racial and gender lenses.”
Washington agreed. Although Hill’s testimony was not universally well-received, she cited several instances of victories that resulted from the Thomas/Hill hearings.
“In the following year, more women ran for office, more women of color ran for office, the appearance of the Senate Judiciary Committee changed — by the following year they had appointed women to that committee — so it was one of the victories because America sat at home and watched these two African-Americans talk to a row of old white men. We all saw those optics,” Washington explained.
Hill considered what would have happened if the Senate took leadership during the hearings and used them to set a standard of review for sexual harassment.
She believes the Senate Judiciary Committee should have called experts in sexual harassment to testify at the hearing and enlighten committee members on the issue.
“That’s what you do when you don’t understand; you call in the experts,” she further explained.
Hill noted that the recent attention toward sexual assault on college campuses is a result of a government that’s finally taking steps to protect students, specifically with legislation like Title IX.
However, Hill argued that there’s still progress to be made. “There are still a lot of people who think that the problem [of sexual harassment] is not a problem, and unfortunately, there are still some women who think that ‘It’s just the way it is.’ And no one is stepping up to really push hard on that,” Hill said.
When Hill explained Hollywood’s power to bring attention to issues of sexuality, Washington added that the issue has “international importance” because America’s greatest export is entertainment. Hill commented that sexual harassment “happens all of the time on television and it’s a laugh line; even rape happens and there are jokes,” she explained. “So how is it that you’re supposed to then go into the workplace and understand that this is wrong or illegal when it’s been portrayed to you as something that’s funny or something that you should shrug off?”
Washington followed up by defining her individual responsibility as an actress in the industry: “I know that I live in a world where my humanity as a woman is something that people want to ignore, and my humanity as a person of a color is something that people want to ignore. So I’m aware that by choosing the roles, and choosing the stories that I choose — the very act of being a fully committed artist is an activist act — these are people that we want to ignore in culture, so when you force people to pay attention to somebody that the world is trying to disenfranchise, it’s an activist act. So … whenever I can put my work in a more important sociological and psychological context, it’s a joy for me.”
Prof. Jasmine Johnson (AAAS), who was in attendance at the event, asked Hill and Washington about the role of the Thomas/Hill hearings in thinking about feminism as an issue important to all gender identities. Hill answered that the subject matter brought attention to what masculinity meant, especially in Washington D.C.
“That’s what we really learned — [that] being sexually abusive was almost a prerogative of the Senate, and [that] being sexist and having the option of really degrading women or using them sexually was what it meant to be a male in Washington [D.C.] … It’s harmful in many ways because how can you turn around and represent women if in fact you think that this is the norm?” Hill questioned the audience.
Washington further explained that the Thomas/Hill hearings were deeply divided because the conversation was focused on policy and not humanity. “That’s why I love the experience about how art changes people — because it really is about first opening up your heart to what connects us as human beings,” she said.
Washington used her own experience with art as an example. She explained acting has shown her that fear and desire are universal emotions and that when we bring compassion to our conversations, the conversations are more open.
Hill brought the issue of sexual harassment full circle by bringing attention to sexual assault and sexual harassment on college campuses and our duty to have these conversations in academic settings.
According to Hill, Hollywood and college campuses cannot eliminate the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault on their own.
“So whatever and wherever you are, … everybody has a role in addressing important social issues of the day.… People say, ‘Well, don’t you get discouraged?’ and I say, ‘Not as discouraged as I would be, if we don’t do it.’ And so I just encourage you to take wherever you are and whatever you’re doing and realize that you have an important role to play in moving these issues far beyond really where we are today, and maybe even far beyond what we have imagined,” Hill said.
After the event, students gathered outside the Wasserman Cinematheque, discussing the event. The Justice spoke with Akilah Elie ’17, who summarized her feelings: “To see sexual harassment at the forefront and to see a conversation about it between two black women — that’s so powerful, especially at Brandeis, [a University] that’s so founded on social justice — so it was great to see that.”