Sexual harassment in America, then and now
Anita Hill discusses her new film “Anita” about the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas in 1991 and the importance of confronting sexual harassment
In 1991, Anita Hill became an unwitting public figure when she was called to testify in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas. Her testimony, which outlined a history of sexual harassment by Thomas, was riveting to many. The panel’s treatment of Hill appalled many.
Nearly 23 years later, Hill, now a Brandeis faculty member, has shared her perspective of the hearing in the documentary “Anita.” Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Mock, the film marks the first time Hill has spoken in depth about what led her to testify before the U.S. Senate and the obstacles she faced in simply telling the truth.
The film has premiered in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it received strong reviews, and opens in other cities nationally this weekend, including the Boston area. Hill will participate in a question and answer forum following the film’s 7 p.m. showing at the Embassy Cinema in Waltham on Friday, April 4 and the 7:05 p.m. showing at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge on Saturday, April 5.
A senior advisor to the provost at Brandeis and a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Hill spoke with BrandeisNow on the issue of sexual harassment in the U.S. and society’s response to it.
Why did you feel it was important to retell your experience of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1991?
There are myriad gender issues still going on today, and they need to be addressed. We are confronted by them practically every day in the newspapers, whether it is the court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair or the issues of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses. These problems are ongoing, and we can learn from the past. Although the hearing was nearly 23 years ago, it was a critical reflection of where we were as a society, and it can help us understand where we are now and where we need to be to resolve these issues.
Are you surprised at where we are today in terms of understanding and addressing the issue of sexual harassment?
I am disappointed that we are not farther along, but I won’t say I am surprised. We are faced with entrenched bias that has become part of our institutions and the way we do things. We need to look at how our systems work and how our rules and policies prevent us from actually achieving equality. This will take time. We started a conversation 23 years ago, but that was just the start of the conversation and we need to continue it.
What have you learned in the making of the film and its public showings?
Working on the film has made me aware of the number of very young people, even those in elementary school, who are confronted with the issue of sexual harassment and various kinds of misconduct. I see the misconduct as a whole spectrum of behavior, ranging from sexual harassment to physical harassment. It now includes cyberharassment and cyberbullying. It also includes behavior that is aimed at people because of their gender or sexuality but may not on its face appear to be sexual.
Is our society ready to confront and respond to sexual harassment?
I absolutely believe we can and will confront the issue because I have seen how much we have changed in the past 23 years. We now recognize that sexual harassment is a reality, that it has a negative impact on all of us, and that we need to figure out how we can make sure it is no longer the norm in our institutions. We still need to address some underlying issues, including the failure of society to recognize the importance and value of women and their contributions.
What is the next step in addressing sexual harassment?
We are at a point now where, when sexual harassment occurs, we have to decide what the consequences are. Sinclair’s court-martial amplifies this issue. He admitted to having engaged in pornography in the workplace and having inappropriate and extramarital affairs with people he commanded. Many people felt that the court’s decision in his case (a $20,000 fine and no jail sentence) was a slap on the wrist. So we have to decide if we are willing to have punitive consequences for behavior that we know is wrong and that is undermining the integrity of our institutions and keeping them from moving forward. So that is one of the big questions. If sexual harassment really matters, what are we willing to do about it?