The other day, cultural reference point and professor Anita Hill, was Jon Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show. It has been 22 years since the US Senate judiciary hearings that preceded the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court. Hill has lived what most would see as a fairly private life since the hearings, in which she was subjected against her will to all kinds of humiliating and embarrassing questioning before a panel of all-white, all-male senators. Thomas was confirmed (by a narrow margin), but Hill’s testimony perhaps shed a light on the issue of sexual harassment in ways it had never been before. As she explained on The Daily Show, a younger generation of women, who may have heard of her, do not know the whole story behind why she is known. A new documentary about her story, Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, debuts in theatres soon – and the story is one that needs to be told.
I have often reflected on how hard it is to fully understand history and precedent without context. One example is that of the struggle for women’s equality and feminist theory. It is misleading to frame – or phrase – it this way because there really is too much nuance and depth just in this struggle – too many offshoots and movements in every struggle. That is, women’s studies can be a very broad umbrella covering everything from women in history to “mainstream” feminism to radical feminism – to all kinds of perspectives about “subcategories” of these “feminisms”. I put quotation marks around all these terms because they have been analyzed to such extremes by the academics in gender, cultural, anthropological and sociological studies, that, even if I could make sense of all the categories, I don’t think this is the place to go into it. It’s enough just to say that discussing one woman (Hill) who “spoke truth to power” crosses into multiple categories and is intrinsic to so many of the narratives of these categories. But ultimately it comes down to the story of one woman, which, when put into context, shows the outline of a much bigger, longer and more complex struggle.
When I dubiously undertook an MA degree in gender studies a number of years ago (which I just as casually dropped), I found it easy to dismiss a lot of the rhetoric and theory around women’s studies. A lot of it, it seemed, was anti-man/anti-human in many ways and tried to assign some kind of superiority to women. I was not interested in that. But if one were to continue reading and digging in, it would be possible to find the important links between theory and academic rigor on the subject and real-life applications. When I was enrolled in the program, I found myself complaining to a former colleague, a woman who was much older than me (my parents’ age), who had been working in a male-dominated, highly technical US government agency for her entire career. While she took some of her opinions (anti-man) to extremes, she made good points about how she had seen things markedly change in the workplace for women over the course of her career, even if on some level it still felt backwards at times. When she began, the sexual harassment Anita Hill highlighted as well as the tendency for male employees to treat female employees, at whatever level, as their personal secretaries (at best) or as sexual objects (at worst) was commonplace and accepted. And what woman, perhaps just glad that she was able to get the job she had, was going to make waves about that?
My former colleague’s point contextualized a lot of the theory I read about – institutional discrimination and the unspoken, tacit acceptance of harassment (and the lack of a definition of, let alone a prohibition of, said harassment) were also the norm for a long time. Only slow, incremental work against these ingrained ways of existing in workplaces and the courage of the women who stepped forward – either in their workplaces or in the scholastic realm (or a combination of both) could create the environment I took for granted when I started reading these gender studies texts.
This dovetails with an unrelated story I recently read about the need for academics and intellectuals to engage in public discourse and be actively on political and policy issues. The article discusses two professors who were recently dismissed for reasons related to not bringing in enough grant money; not because they did not deliver quality education, mentorship or broad political engagement. The whole thing disturbed me, as I realized that these professors, and professors like Anita Hill, are essential to both good education and to public and civil dialogue and policymaking. When I read my gender studies textbooks and was mystified by a lot of nonsense that needed to be waded through to get to genuine understanding of issues, I needed this kind of leadership and mentorship to contextualize the work.
The Nation article referenced above cites a New York Times op-ed article, which entreats academics to get involved in public debate, stating that today’s academics “have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”. This captured exactly what I felt – the “hyperspecialization” had erased context from the sometimes very thoughtful and rigorous academic work. True mentors, engaged politically and in society, provide perspective and context and an historical framework. While the professors cited in the article have been asked to leave their positions for fundraising reasons, I suspect the whole higher education system in America is following the corporate model, and these professors are marginalized by doing what they really should be doing. And Anita Hill – well, she has found her niche – but not without having been punished publicly and by much of society for having been a kind of whistleblower for the real issues that underpin the academic thinking that she (and other gender studies/women’s studies professors) works to make a larger part of public discourse. People trying to make real change and have a lasting impact get punished no matter how they go about it.
This is not to say that sexual harassment no longer exists – I am quite sure it does. But a sensitivity to it has been raised, at least in most private and public sector workplaces. There are mechanisms in place to try to deal with it. Is the system perfect? No. But the Anita Hills of the world helped us reach a place where sexual harassment is not tolerated as just a part of doing business.
On an only semi-related note, when I saw that Anita Hill was the guest on The Daily Show, the first thing that came to mind for me was a line from a Sonic Youth song (“Youth Against Fascism”: “I believe Anita Hill…”). I often think about these kinds of cultural references in songs. They are so timely in the moment, and the people embracing these songs can instantly connect to what these references mean. But without reminders some of the references become lost. I should probably make a list of 1990s references just for the sake of seeing how often this happens and how often I find myself explaining these references to younger people.
For now, I can only immediately think of references from Ice-T’s O.G. album in which he referred to Tipper Gore and later to “Bush and his crippled bitch”. What person today (not of my generation) is even going to remember what these mentions referred to? People barely even remember Tipper as the unfortunate victim of Al Gore’s staged kiss during the 2000 presidential election, let alone remember her as the crusader who wanted to put parental labels on CDs warning about explicit lyrics. This was a major, burning issue at the time, challenging First Amendment issues about free speech and censorship. But now – most young people would question, “CDs? What are CDs?” And Ice-T referred to Bush Sr and his wife. And kids – would they even know that Ice-T was ever something other than a cop on TV and a reality-TV star? Haha.