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30 years ago she helped usher in a new era in the fight against gender-based violence. Her job, she says, is far from over.
In 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she experienced while serving as an advisor to then Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had suffered. At that time she was questioned, dismissed and relentlessly ridiculed in the press; Thomas was later confirmed and still sits in the square to this day. Since then, Hill has dedicated her life to making sure that no voice can be silenced. Her new book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence (Viking), is an urgent call to arms and describes her ongoing efforts as a legal scholar, professor, and attorney to bring about real change. Here she is speaking to Ariana Marsh, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, about how this has come about over the past three decades and the crucial work that needs to be done.
It’s been 30 years since I testified against Clarence Thomas have. I am understandably disappointed with the lack of progress in the fight against gender-based violence, but I am very encouraged that there is a way forward. We have new tools, we have new information, and I think we have a real passion among many people to fight and do better.
According to what I said, record numbers of women came forward to file sexual harassment complaints and run for office. It struck me that the problem was not an individual, but a systemic one. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, this confirmed that idea. I was really hoping Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing wouldn’t be a repeat of 1991, but of course I was disappointed and frustrated once again. The system doesn’t work. And that’s why we have to change it.
As I testified, the system really held me out for public ridicule. There was no one in the Senate to help me when I got home, and I think that goes for Dr. Ford. She received threats for challenging the status quo. You and I were fortunate that we both had a wonderful support system that included family, co-workers, and strangers. But not everyone has that.
One of the gifts of the #MeToo movement was that it raised the question of why it is important for women to be believed. It enabled other survivors to hear that they weren’t alone, that solidarity is important. It also exposed the lie that the problem is just a few bad apples. #MeToo has helped bring about a cultural change. She revealed information that lawyers, activist groups, and researchers can use to create processes to get people to stand up, file a complaint, and be heard – so that our leaders in schools, workplaces, and government can start scrutinize their own processes closely. But it wasn’t designed to change the law.
I talked to Dr. Ford speaking, and one of the things that stands out is that they sincerely want to change the process so that people who have experienced harassment and gender-based violence will come forward in any situation. Complainants need to know what an investigation will look like, who to speak to, what to expect, and what the possible outcomes might be. Right now, in most cases, there are rules by which a person must prove their case before they have a chance to speak out. That’s how big the cultural assumptions against you are, and they’re built into our systems.
We need to be able to conduct thorough and impartial investigations into gender-based violence. The data are clear: women of color are more likely to be victims of gender-based violence. Yet the systems we have operate on the basis of racial and gender biases. In addition, you can add another level of gender identity; The number of acts of violence against trans women is staggering.
What I keep hearing is that people who file a complaint of sexual violence with the police end up feeling like they’ve committed some kind of crime. In the criminal justice system, we know that there are backlogs of rape kits that have not been processed. And what does that say to a victim? It says, “We don’t take this seriously enough to investigate at the same speed as we investigate other crimes.” The numbers tell you how difficult it is to bring a charge. Think about what happened to Bill Cosby and the highest court in Pennsylvania. Even after there was a charge, it was overturned because a district attorney had an agreement not to prosecute him, and the court honored that agreement.
One of the gifts of the #MeToo movement was that she asked why it is important for women to be believed.
Prevention is also critical, especially in educational institutions. I am shocked at the amount of violence that occurs in K-12 schools, and I am also quite shocked that some institutions are denying responsibility. At the university level, whether we are parents or donors, we must hold institutions accountable for the problems that arise on campus. Think about what happened in the states of Ohio and Michigan regarding their complicity with the sexual abuse that Dr. Richard Strauss and Dr. Larry Nassar committed against students. These are huge academic institutions and these problems persist.
It is vitally important that we undo the damage that the 2020 Supreme Court ruling on the United States did against Morrison, which gutted parts of the law against violence against women. The court ruled that Congress was not empowered to adopt certain safeguards based on the false conclusion that violence against women did not have a material impact on international trade. The truth is that gender-based violence costs enormous amounts of money to individuals and their communities. People’s mental and physical health suffers. As we heard from statements in the Harvey Weinstein case, people’s careers suffer. People lose their sense of security and may have to move to a new home, often with their children, especially in intimate partner violence. The money that should go into productivity is really only going to try to make people healthy again. And that is a significant cost factor.
Systemic changes will only take place if we insist on them. It is time for a president to look at the whole problem and decide to stop it. Although I have a history with Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, when I testified in 1991, we know very well what the problem is and we understand each other’s position. But I also understand that he has tremendous power. He could invite someone tomorrow to speak about the issue of dealing with sexual assault and rape in the criminal justice system, or someone to speak to business leaders about sexual harassment, assault, and blackmail in the workplace. He could convene a committee tomorrow to rebuild the law against violence against women so that it does what it should be doing.
That’s why I think the Cuomo decision is so important. When Biden called for the resignation of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo after the sexual harassment report was released, I was surprised and happy. It was the first time a president had called a popularly elected official in this way.
Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, did exactly what the victims and survivors asked of us: a thorough investigation. James set out her method of gathering information – who she talked to, what they said – and she explained why she came to the conclusions she had made in her report. At the very end, and that was important, she said, she believed the women who complained.
In the United States, we have established ourselves as leaders for justice and democracy. This is another issue where it is worth trying to live up to all of these ideals that we hold.
Fashion Editor: Miguel Enamorado; Hair and Makeup: Kelley Quan for Makeup Forever; Production: random productions; Special thanks go to Brandeis University.