Anita Hill still speaks in the measured tone she did when questioning an all-white, all-male panel before the Senate in 1991 – a young law professor dressed in a blue linen suit who would give the nation a day-to-day education on sexual harassment at work. .
Thirty years later, she is more academic than activist, focusing on avenues for progress and continuing to teach law as a professor of social policy, law and gender studies at Brandeis University.
But to be fair, Hill’s patience is waning. “I’m really running out of it,” she said in a video interview from her home in Massachusetts earlier this month.
Her new book, “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence,” due out on Viking Tuesday, aims to channel that impatience into something more substantial – a sort of manifesto.
Through interviews, personal accounts, and social and legal analysis, Hill, 65, aims to connect the dots between seemingly disparate social ills – school shootings, campus sexual assault, domestic violence and the homelessness, as well as the gender and racial dynamics behind each – to show how they create a culture in which gender-based violence can thrive. She describes it as “the literal and figurative foot on the neck of women”.
This is Hill’s third book and, as she notes, perhaps her most ambitious. “It’s kind of like trying to boil the ocean,” she said, but until we see the problem holistically, “we can’t really fix one piece.”
Hill spoke about his Senate testimony, its aftermath, #MeToo, and his recent conversation with Christine Blasey Ford. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You weave the story throughout your book, including some fascinating case law on sexual harassment. But for me, one of the most shocking things was learning that it was the Redbook of All Places that conducted the first national survey on sexual harassment, in 1976. Not the Harvard Business Review, not the federal government – a women’s magazine.
Redbook did it because Redbook was the one who cared. This investment should have been made by our government. A few years ago, Senators Murray, Warren, Feinstein and Gillibrand called for the economic costs of workplace harassment to be measured. They wrote a letter. As far as I know, they never got a response. So Redbook has done us all a favor, because we wouldn’t even have much information to validate what has happened to us for generations if we didn’t have this survey. And even now, there is still no comprehensive measure of the rate or economic cost of sexual harassment in the United States.
You tell a story in the book about your older brother, Albert, warning you not to drink the punch when you went to college. I have heard a version of this warning a hundred times, and yet I don’t think I ever stopped to think about the implication. For me, reading it was one of those ‘aha’ moments of realizing how deeply entrenched the sexual violence hypothesis is in our culture.
It is almost as if we accept it. And we tell young women – one in four who are at risk of being sexually assaulted in their freshman or sophomore year of college – that you’re sort of lonely, because these things are inevitable to happen.
I was 10 years old when you testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I don’t remember really understanding what was going on, but I remember my father insisting that we leave the television on. For those who haven’t experienced the testimony, can we just take a moment to note how bizarre this all was? A senator suggested that you drew inspiration from “The Exorcist”.
It was so weird that it was hard to even see it as real. You ask yourself, for example, does this really happen?
And yet, what has held so many people back is your composure.
I think in many ways I have been prepared by life. I grew up in a household with a fairly measured mother. She got things done. And we learned that she was very serious, even though she wasn’t, you know, screaming and screaming – which you can expect a lot of times if you’re a mother of 13 kids.
How well did you know that being unfazed was almost required of you, as a black woman testifying before a panel of all-white men?
The nature of the challenges thrown at me, and certainly the setting, bore this testimony like no other experience I have ever had. But I had experienced it before – as a black woman who, for example, stands in front of a class of students who, at the time I started my teaching, were mostly white men and men, and presents himself as an authority figure. . I am going to be someone who is going to be challenged. Because some of them had never had to interact with a black woman as an authority figure.
The problem with the Senate was that members of the Judiciary Committee had never interacted with a black woman as an authority on even his own life. I knew from the tone and the language that was used, and just the way people looked at me, that they were questioning my right to be there and my right to have a voice. And it was familiar. It was nothing new. And so, unfortunately, I had trained myself to react under these circumstances.
How did this experience affect you in the years that followed?
It was difficult, but it helped me to have strong relationships. Because relationships are the first thing you care about. What will happen to my friendships? What will happen to family members who might not want to be associated with this whole experience? I’ve lost people who don’t even want to talk to me, even to this day. So that part was painful. But I think I was able to resist because I had so many people supporting me.
It was interesting, my dad would tell people – in this little town where I grew up, in the countryside of Oklahoma – he would say, “Oh, I’m Anita’s dad. And I would say, “You know, daddy, you might not just want to say that to Everybody. “But he was determined, and our relationship just got even stronger because of it.
One of your chapters is called “The Myth of the Awakened Generation”. What does it mean?
It’s about our belief that a generation will come and realize that all of these differences that we use to hold people down – whether it’s race or gender or gender identity or gender identity. or class – that all of those things really don’t matter. This this generation will see people as equals, and because of this, problems will disappear, all prejudices will disappear. And this is a myth for two reasons: first, because there is always a mixture of beliefs in any generation. But also because there will be biased systems, and the only way to be successful in those systems is to adapt to some of these biases. What we need to do is change the systems, but it will not happen overnight. We cannot expect a generation to correct them.
You seem to have a lot of patience in this regard.
I do not know. I am short of. I am really short. And that was part of the urgency for me to write this book – it’s like, I don’t know how long I’m going to be doing this. I don’t even know how long I’ll be staying. I want to get it all out.
You chair the Hollywood Commission, which works to eliminate sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. Last month we saw the implosion of another Hollywood group formed in the wake of #MeToo – Time is up. Is the reality of power in this country that if you get too close to it, you are bound to be complicit in its abuse in one way or another?
I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think you can have a Times Up that puts survivors and victims and the interest of equality and fairness first. And I think when Times Up comes back, it’ll be front and center in their minds. I think anytime you have an organization that is focused on changing government policy, it’s very difficult to at least avoid the appearance of complicity.
I don’t know what all the facts were in this case. I know what I heard and I can understand the outrage. But I also know that – and maybe this is my personal bias about politics – that it’s an institution that almost forces people to compromise. And the question is, how do you maintain your integrity and your principles while doing what you need to do to get the legislation passed?
You called the 168-page report by the Attorney General of New York Letitia james – which ultimately led to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation on charges of sexual misconduct – a model for how other institutions might investigate the misconduct allegations. Why?
We have a moment in this situation in Cuomo where we got as close as possible to the right kind of investigation, the right kind of treatment. You are the governor, but you are not above the law. We will investigate you. We will find the body to do it. We’re going to put in place a process to do that. We will explain what we are doing. We will explain our results and why we achieved them. And we’re going to make an announcement and come to a conclusion.
I mean, it seems so manual. I think it gets lost because of the situation with Time’s Up. But also because we look at this from a political point of view rather than from the angle of, how do we approach this systemic problem in society? What’s the one thing we can do? And that is to put in place an appropriate system.
Could such a system resolve part of the “due process” debate?
If you put a system in place, then you don’t have people saying, “Well, it’s just a ‘he said, she said’. You have a way to confirm facts. You have testimonials and standards. And so yes, absolutely. You would take away some of the public uncertainty around these issues.
You recently spoke with Christine Blasey Ford for a new podcast. How was it ?
It was wonderful to be able to sit down and talk with her because our experiences, while unique to each of us, are shared. And being able to have a conversation with someone, with hindsight, it did me good, and I wanted to reassure her that one day she will be able to put all that into perspective.
When you were testifying, the women made buttons that said “I believe Anita”. What do you think of the slogan “believe all women”?
We have this cultural presumption that women lie about their experiences of violence. We should go beyond that. We know that the rate of misrepresentation is very low, it is a fact. But most importantly, if we have the right processes, we don’t need to have these slogans. We will have the facts to back up what is really going on. And we won’t have to resort to slogans.