Anita Hill's mission to end gender-based violence

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This Oct. 11, 1991 file photo shows University of Oklahoma Law Professor Anita Hill testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)
This Oct. 11, 1991 file photo shows University of Oklahoma Law Professor Anita Hill testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

Thirty years ago, Anita Hill met the world during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas. Played live on television and on the radio, she alleged in her testimony that Thomas had sexually harassed her.

The hearing put gender-based violence in America's living rooms for the first time.

Hill, now a professor of social policy, law, and women's, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, has a new book out reflecting on the decades since her testimony.

It's called "Believing: Our 30-Year Journey to End Gender-Based Violence," and in it, Hill calls for sweeping community action to end gender violence — "from bullying in schools, to sexual harassment in the workplace, to intimate partner violence at home and to rape and sexual assault on the streets."

"We can't just sort of parse out and deal with this as an issue that [is] only related to certain people, or only happens occasionally, or happens because of a few bad apples," Hill tells Radio Boston. "We have to look really with clear eyes at all of what is going on in the world, and what we need to do to start to develop solutions to address it."

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the wide range of behaviors Hill classifies as gender-based violence, and wanting to honor people who have experienced them

The connections between all of those things came from my experience and my testimony about sexual harassment that I had experienced and that I testified to in 1991, and then hearing from people who connected my experience with their own experience of gender-based violence — including rape and sexual assault victims, including domestic violence victims. So the connection is there. It's there in the minds of victims and survivors. And I wanted to honor their perception of what is going on in our country that we need to address.

Even when we are talking about sexual harassment, many times people think of harassment as being verbal harassment or environmental harassment in a workplace. But when you look at the case law, as I have, you realize that many times on many occasions, in the cases that come before the court, this physical abuse, physical groping, sexual assault and sexual extortion, happens. And it's hard, really, once you look at the range of behavior that happens even under the category of sexual harassment to exclude that. The connection is also in terms of the way the public and sometimes even friends respond to claims of gender-based violence, including harassment, including extreme cases of rape.

On other people's stories about gender violence included in the book

The stories are essential, because I think they humanize the experience. In some ways, I think people like to distance themselves from categories of behavior as though it doesn't affect them. But when you hear the stories of people who have had experiences that I've described in the book, you realize that this is a very human experience and it's not something that we should neglect or try to distance ourselves from. It's something that we should realize is happening to our friends, our colleagues at work, people in our families, and that we should really look at it from the point of view of those individuals who have had the experiences.

"First of all, you have to acknowledge that a problem exists. And then once you acknowledge, you invest in measuring it. Because you can't fix what you haven't measured and acknowledged."

Anita Hill

In 1991, I had expected to hear from people who had experienced sexual harassment. That was my expectation. One of the very first calls that I got after the hearings was sitting in my office and an individual called me, I picked up the phone — I was hesitant at first because I had been getting harassing ... and threatening phone calls. And this individual started out to me by saying, "You've opened a whole can of worms." And this was a person who described himself as a man who had been an incest victim. And he said that the hearings, and the way that the Senate approached me, reminded him of the way that his parents approached him when he tried to tell them that he had been victimized. They dismissed his claim and sided with his abuser, and he was working through those issues. And hearing the Senate's treatment of me helped him to understand his parents' reaction that it wasn't personal, that it was part of our culture.

On her reaction watching Christine Blasey Ford's testimony about then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018

Fortunately, the me that was watching that is not the 35-year-old who experienced the hearing of 1991. I, even in 2018, had gone through years of working through this problem, understanding the problem in the larger sense and ... in terms of how people experience it. But the hearing was different in 2018, for me.

Clearly [it was] something that I had similar experience with. Christine Blasey Ford is her own experience. My experience in '91 is my own experience. But what was striking was that even 27 years after my hearing, there had not been a process in place for Christine Blasey Ford to come into that would allow her to be heard and to be treated fairly. And so ... it didn't surprise me entirely. ... I hoped it would be better. I hoped it would be better in terms of the process. And I hoped it might have a different outcome. But neither of those two things happened.

On whether she's seen a candidate for office who she thought could meaningfully address gender-based violence

Well, unfortunately, we don't ask candidates whether they are going to address this problem. And that's something that needs to be happening regularly — not only for the president, but for all of our representatives. What are you going to do to address this problem? So I really can't judge any of the candidates because we haven't gotten there yet. We haven't even made it part of the conversation in our elections yet. And until we do, we won't really know who is the best candidate, unless we know ... something about where they stand on the issue.

On what it would take to address gender-based violence on the scale she is arguing it exists

First of all, you have to acknowledge that a problem exists. And then once you acknowledge, you invest in measuring it. Because you can't fix what you haven't measured and acknowledged. And so, we can start there with a leadership commitment to do this — and I'm not talking just about leaders in Washington. I'm talking about leaders in our colleges and universities, in our local school districts, in our police departments around the country. All of this leadership needs to be involved in the solution. Because the problem is evident in all of those institutions.

This article was originally published on October 07, 2021.

This segment aired on October 7, 2021.


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