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Anita Hill revisited, 23 years later

It's fair to say that the target audience for the new documentary Anita is not Ginni Thomas. The movie, about Anita Hill, opens with the audio of Thomas' bizarre 2010 voice mail message, asking professor Hill to "consider an apology and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought. I certainly pray about this and hope one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. Okay! Have a good day!"

It's pretty clear that Frieda Lee Mock, the director of Anita, isn't trying to win over those who still maintains that Hill was a deranged fabulist and attention seeker when she testified to Congress in 1991 that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, sexually harassed her when he was her boss

As far as Mock is concerned, Anita Hill was truthful back when she was 35, and Anita Hill is truthful now at 57. Through the voices of longtime friends, corroborating witnesses, plus Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, whose book, Strange Justice, bolstered Hill's claims, what emerges in Anita is the closing argument the Senate never heard.

Hill has been on something of a media tear, promoting the documentary on The Daily Show, The View, and in several online chats. I spoke to her recently about why she was willing to dredge up that awful fall of 1991, and step back into a spotlight that has been anything but kind to her. In the intervening years, she has received death threats, threats of sexual violence, and a sustained campaign to have her fired from her first teaching job in Oklahoma.

In the film Hill says that she once believed she could devote just two years, post-confirmation hearings, to sexual harassment law, and then return to her pet subjects: "Initially," she tells me, "I thought I would just go back and do what I do: commercial law and contracts. But within months I was getting so many requests that it just felt that there was a sincere effort for people to understand sexual harassment ... There just seem to be so many layers to the problem that we're still trying to address them."

Almost every recent interview with Hill begins with an interlocutor observing, in amazement, that 23 years have elapsed since the hearing. I ask whether that's because it feels like it's been longer, or because it feels so recent.

She laughs: "Isn't that odd, though? I think that both are going on. I mean, you look at that panel of men in the Senate and it's 1991 and yet it looks like 50 or 60 years ago. And yet at the same time, when people look at the footage and they see me, they think, "Was that all? Could it have been 23 years ago? Because all these issues are still with us."

We forget that sexual harassment law almost didn't exist 30 years ago. And yet in some ways we are still such a pack of brutalizing harassers. How is it possible that all these years later, after Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama, a Democrat, first called Hill a "scorned woman" and Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a Republican, referred to all that "sexual harassment crap," we still have Sandra Fluke? Doesn't that depress Anita Hill? It depresses me. Do we treat women in the workplace any better than we did 20 years ago?

Hill says there is a difference today: "What I am hoping," she says, "is that this movie will shed a light on the process of 1991 and people can ask themselves, are our processes any better today? Are our policies more responsive today? And I think they clearly are better because I hear from a lot of women that after 1991 it wasn't just that women started to file complaints, but they went into their employment arenas and said, 'This has got to change, we've got to let people know what their rights are, we have to stop the culture of our workplaces that support and suborn these behaviors.' ''

The most brutal part of the film: reliving the failure to acknowledge what Hill was saying, the failure to take her seriously, the failure to call her corroborating witnesses. One of the most crazy-making aspects of the film is that we are forced to watch 14 white male senators persistently refuse to make eye contact with Hill — their eyes roll around the room like Cookie Monster's — while they grill her for hours on the lurid details of penis length, large breasts, Long Dong Silver, and the pubic hair in the Coke can. Yet Hill answers, repeatedly, politely, clarifying and explaining that she is not making a formal sexual harassment claim; that she didn't ask to come forward and testify.

It's not until we arrive at Clarence Thomas' "high-tech lynching" speech that the room stills. The proceeding is completely under Thomas' control. The hearing is effectively over.

"I had a gender and he had a race," says Hill at one point in the film. I ask her what that means. "There were people who tried to ignore the fact that I was an African-American woman, and very importantly, there were senators and the people in the country who ignored the fact that in Washington, D.C., particularly in 1991, there was a great deal of entitlement that went along with being a male. They didn't take that it into account and instead they portrayed him as an African-American who could use the lynching metaphor to his advantage."

I ask Hill how it felt to bite back her own anger while Thomas gave full vent to his. "I don't use my anger as a strategy," she replies. "And I think that's what he was doing."

Hill doesn't just want to teach young people a (recent) history lesson. She wants them to see, too, how things have turned out just fine for her. The second half of Anita shows Hill in her new life, teaching law at Brandeis, in a long-term relationship, love-bombed by family, and surrounded by young women seeking to learn from her experience.

The change in the numbers of women in government can be at least partially attributed to the hearings. (In 1991 there were two women in the Senate. In 1992, female politicians enraged by the hearings won four new Senate seats and 24 new House seats.) Hill's testimony had a huge impact on sexual harassment law, and in the public discourse.

Watching the movie Anita made me very angry, but talking to the person Anita gave me some hope that the next generation of women, many of whom don't even know her name, will be fully visible in the eyes of the law, in part because of her ordeal.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the law for Slate.com. As of now, there are no announced plans for local theaters to show Anita. Netflix to the rescue?

Anita Hill revisited, 23 years later 04/03/14 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2014 4:01pm]
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