Thirty years after her landmark testimony against Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas at his senate confirmation hearing, Prof. Anita Hill (Heller) released her book “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence.” On Wednesday, Nov. 10, the Heller School for Social Policy and Management hosted a virtual event with Hill to discuss “Believing” and Hill’s experience grappling with the repercussions of speaking out about sexual harassment. The event was hosted by Prof. ChaeRan Freeze (NEJS). 

Hill was the first woman to testify against a Supreme Court justice nominee on the basis of sexual harassment. Her legacy enabled other women to step forward. In 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against nominee Brett Kavanaugh. While both Thomas and Kavanaugh were confirmed, Hill’s work is not over and she continues it through her new book. 

Hill began by explaining that writing the book caused her to realize that in order to achieve what she set out to achieve, — which is the end of gender violence, — “you really have to believe… It’s not just about believing women who come forward, or anyone who comes forward, to report gender based violence. It’s about believing that you have a right to be heard,” Hill said. 

After Hill testified in 1991, she received what she described as a “flood of stories” from others who were victims and survivors of sexual harassment and assault. She had to simultaneously process the deluge of stories and still make sense of her own experience. “I was still beginning to bear the weight of the trauma that they were carrying,” Hill said. She described one prominent phone call she received from a man who once tried to tell his parents he had been sexually abused by a family member and had received only dismissal, and had been reminded of that by Hill’s hearing. What she learned from that call, Hill said, was that “we are hearing these things in order to make sense of them and get beyond that pain.” 

Hill told the audience that her mindset was “poor” in the wake of her testimony because she hung onto the idea that “you just work through everything,” a lesson she said she learned from growing up on a farm. “You have to work, no matter whether it’s snowing or raining, or a drought. You’ve got to work through it.” 

Hill’s testimony and subsequent work provided a language and framework for understanding what there wasn’t a language for. She made it clear that gender based violence was a collective experience and a collective problem, which was reflected in many of the responses she received. Hill recounted a letter she received from a woman that around the time of the hearing had been sexually assaulted while attending college. In the letter, she wrote that her college put into place “a system that allowed her to be heard.” Hill said about the woman’s letter, “I don’t think she talked much about the outcome so much as that she felt heard and affirmed in the process, and that was because of [ Thomas’] hearings in 1991.”

Hill’s book also focuses on how deeply intertwined sexism is with racism. “When it comes down to it, there’s still the cultural barriers that say that [certain] individuals aren’t valued as much,” Hill explained. “Or the cultural myths that say, well, these people don’t deserve the kinds of protections [of] the perfect victim.” The “perfect victim,” as Hill put it, is a young, white, straight woman. She explained that there are issues of cultural bias that work against people of color as well as low income workers that makes it even harder for them to have their voices heard. “We are just beginning to understand how to deal with the structures and processes that keep all of us, really, from being guaranteed the protections that we need,” Hill said. 

Hill explained that it is particularly difficult for young women of color to speak out about sexual harassment and assault, especially at historically Black colleges and universities. What makes it difficult, she said, is that the person they are accusing is sometimes another Black person, “and they realize how difficult it is, the pressure [that] comes from the community to remain silent.” 

Because there is such a long history of wrongful accusations against Black men that often resulted in death and lynching, Hill explained that it can complicate matters. “One of the things I think we need to do is to focus the conversation on the reality that what both groups [Black men and women] are reacting to is racism, and the dread of the white male gaze on the community,” Hill said, adding that it is important to acknowledge the issue of racism as well as the fact that 50% of the community is endangered because of their gender. She emphasized the fact that “culturally, these women are not to be valued.”

For Hill, of the more damaging outcomes of her 1991 testimony was an op-ed written by sociologist Orlando Patterson. The piece, she said, argued that her claim of sexual harassment was invalid “because, as a Black woman, [she] knew or should have known how to respond in a way that would not have been accusatory.” This thinking, she said, has been instilled in how we respond to Black women who come forward about gender-based violence. An example she employed was that of R. Kelly, who was recently been found guilty of racketeering, sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of a child. Hill argued that it took 30 years for that to happen because his victims were Black women and because “the system they went into did not value those women.” She explained, “What it does is allow predators to take advantage of the racism that says we don’t have to pay attention to these people.” 

Hill emphasized both in her book and at the event that gender based violence is a structural problem, rather than the results of only a “few bad seeds.” In our society, however, there is a deeply rooted “culture of denial,” Hill explained, evident through dismissals of accusations and victim blaming. “That culture then gets built into our systems,” Hill said. 

This information and experience allowed Hill to establish her thesis: to fix the systemic issues of bias and denial, we have to start from the top. “This is not behavior that we’re going to be able to respond to by picking off a few people or sending a few people to jail,” Hill said. This is how she began to understand what happened in 1991 — it was the system that was responsible. “It was the systems and processes that enabled [Thomas], who was protected by a powerful man, to go without being held accountable for his behavior,” Hill stated. “It happened in 1991, and then it repeated in 2018,” with Blasey Ford.

Hill ended the event on a hopeful note. She noted that as a professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality studies, she had observed that students were engaged in learning about gender based violence, and that she is optimistic that they will continue to be. The research and work being done to fight this violence, she said, shows progress. “I’m hopeful about the growth that the nation has experienced in terms of recognizing the behaviors that are keeping people at risk and unsafe and in danger,” Hill said. She concluded by saying that she believes the nation is ready to begin addressing the structures and systems that enforce behaviors of gender based violence.