Anita Hill's Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence was published in 2021 by Viking.
Believing Anita Hill
Why Gender-Based Violence Threatens Democracy and What to Do About It
Getting Beyond the Outrage Cycles
In Defense of Ourselves, Relentlessly
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Believing Anita Hill
A couple of months ago, Signs asked me to address why this book is relevant now.
Anita Hill’s Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence reminded me so powerfully of my own book that I was glad to engage again in this important topic. One answer might be, as National Public Radio reporter Danielle Kurtzleben asserted in her review of Believing, that this is a “book only Anita Hill could have written.” Setting aside Kurtzleben’s opinion of the personality of the author, It is worthwhile to at least examine her claim. Could “only” Anita Hill have written this book and made it relevant? The answer, I think, is “yes and no.”
She was indeed the most renowned of all the victims of sexual abuse. But many other victims of gender abuse have written substantively and importantly about the subject and experience: Gretchen Carlson’s Be Fierce, Roxane Gay’s Hunger, and Chanel Miller’s Know My Name, to cite a few. Hill has also devoted her scholarly life to teaching and writing about the subject. But many legal scholars—just recently legal activist Alexandra Brodsky (Sexual Justice)—have written about the history and jurisprudence that charts the “journey.” What does Believing uniquely add?
As the brave woman who stood up to the whole rotten white male Senate in 1991, Hill’s history does grant her presumptive authority. She was probably uniquely positioned as a confidante on the receiving end of many stories, which she uses to winning effect in telling this familiar history. But the best part about the book is the use of an uninflected, factual tone (familiar to all who watched in 1991) to make some pretty radical arguments. And radical arguments are, indeed, in order. Many subjects offer the opportunity for truly radical analysis. One, the role of Catharine MacKinnon. Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and the Republican Party. The intersection of race and gender violence, from the earliest days. And the devastating intersection of the violence with female poverty. It’s not hard to be indignant about the rapey wrongdoers in the early cases and Harvey Weinstein, but Hill goes well beyond them. Believing passes all my tests.The best part about the book is the use of an uninflected, factual tone (familiar to all who watched in 1991) to make some pretty radical arguments. And radical arguments are, indeed, in order.Click To Tweet
Bravely, Hill gives Catharine MacKinnon, usually untouchable in feminist circles, some credit for thinking up the original theory (maybe it’s time for full blown MacKinnon revisionism). She also saw the central role of Black plaintiffs in the early cases. Hill blames Biden explicitly for running the 1991 hearing in a way designed to avoid the facts. She makes fun of her long wait for an apology and concludes after it comes that she is “not sure that he heard me,” concluding “fortunately,” “I wasn’t emotionally invested in a Biden apology.” As for Bill Clinton, Hill strikes at the heart of what made his behavior, the complicity of Hillary Clinton, and the tardy and inadequate feminist response so harmful. After her trial by fire in 1991, she writes ,“women’s advocates continued warning leaders about the problem of gender violence . . .revelations about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky … dealt a serious blow to those efforts.” In light of the predictable blowback to criticizing other feminists openly, regardless of their choice of political expediency in 1998, Hill puts the damning words in the mouth of the impeccable and iconic Georgetown law professor Emma Coleman Jordan rather than speaking them herself. But there they are. To her enormous credit, Hill even resists the temptation to sacrifice recent Biden accuser Tara Reade, in light of the scorched earth campaign against her waged with the 2020 election at stake. “Given the significance of the moment … and the seriousness of her allegations,” Hill writes, “an investigation into Reade’s charges was called for.” Finally, without letting the Democrats off the hook, Hill does name the “coalition, fueled by ex-President Trump, whose venomous antiwoman ideology has not been denounced by Republican leaders.” You love to see it.
So, “yes,” there are many reasons for the uniqueness of Anita Hill. Why “no”? Because it turns out it takes a village of feminist books to make a point, where one tome would suffice for almost any other interest. Since the publication of Sexual Harassment of Working Women in 1979, we, including Anita Hill, have written and written and written and written, and yet, as Hill retells so beautifully, the beating goes on.
The optimism Hill comfortingly offers at the end (“together we can end gender violence”) may be simply a question of bad timing. Perhaps Believing went to press before the serious revelations about one of the most recent efforts to end gender violence, the Time’s Up organization, with which Hill was personally involved as a member of the now-defunct advisory board, and which shared personnel with the Hollywood Commission, which Hill chaired. Again, Hill is uniquely positioned to tell the story of how that so promising “group of industry leaders” spiraled into dissent and self-dealing. I will eagerly await the paperback.
Linda Hirshman is the author of Reckoning: The Epic Battle against Sexual Abuse and Harassment” (2018) and “The Color of Abolition: How a Printer, a Prophet and a Contessa Moved a Nation” (forthcoming in 2022).
Why Gender-Based Violence Threatens Democracy and What to Do About It
Linda C. McClain
Professor Anita Hill’s Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence is a bracing read: she critiques the failure to recognize that gender-based violence is “an existential threat to our democracy” and a “foundational inequity” that “hinders our efforts in all other areas.” In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson used the potent image of America as an “old house” in which the caste system is an “unseen skeleton” providing the architecture of hierarchy. Hill similarly observes that when a house is built wrong in the first place, simply “shining a flashlight into one dirty corner” will not reveal the structural changes necessary to eliminate gender violence and bias toward masculinity. Wilkerson warned about the steep price America continues to pay for caste; Hill argues that “gender aggression and violence remain a drag on the social fabric of our country.” We should be “enraged by our culture and systems that pass gender-based violence onto our children like some cruel inheritance”; we should harness that anger to insist that leaders of public and private institutions work to end such violence.
As a feminist legal scholar, I welcome Hill’s thoughtful examination of how and why “gender bias, antiwoman dogma, and misogyny” persist despite a “sustained campaign” for gender equality. In my Feminist Jurisprudence seminar, I frame one class as “Two (or Three) ‘Cultural Moments’ or ‘National Conversations’ on Sexual Harassment and Feminism.” “Moment one,” not surprisingly, is Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in October 1991 about the sexual harassment she experienced from her former boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. We read critical reflections by Hill and feminist legal scholars on the import of those hearings and how gender, race, and the politics of Supreme Court appointments interacted to make it difficult to hear and believe Hill. Hill’s title—Believing—aptly captures both the resistance and lack of belief she encountered when she testified to the committee and her own journey of listening to—and believing—numerous accounts of gender-based violence. Even as Senators either disbelieved Hill or suggested that Thomas’s conduct was “not so bad,” Hill became an inspiration for victims and survivors of gender-based violence who did believe her and shared their stories with her.Even as Senators either disbelieved Hill or suggested that Thomas’s conduct was “not so bad,” Hill became an inspiration for victims and survivors of gender-based violence who did believe her and shared their stories with her. Click To Tweet
Hill uses her own experience, as a Black woman, with how sexism and racism intersect in gender-based violence as a springboard to a broad inventory of how different cultural and systemic factors interact to rationalize an “it’s not so bad” attitude toward many forms of gender-based violence. One root cause, she persuasively contends, is that “we still don’t value women as social, economic, or political contributors.” Hill admirably takes a consistently inclusive approach to violence against women. She asks both “do we value women?” and “do we value all women?” including women of color. On the second question, she believes there is a need to “understand how and why Black women have been pioneers against sexual harassment and assault” even as she relates the “victim shaming” that she experienced as a Black woman to contemporary examples of such shaming when Black women speak out. Particularly insightful is Hill’s critique of how cultural constructions of manliness and masculinity contribute to gender-based violence against men and gender-nonconforming persons.
I appreciated Hill’s conclusion. Analogizing to Ibrahim X. Kendi’s argument that it is not enough to be against racism, we must “act in ways that are deliberately antiracist,” Hill insists: “it’s not enough to say that we don’t discriminate against women. We must dig deeper and become anti-gender-based violence.” A valuable prescription.
Linda C. McClain is the Robert Kent Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law and affiliated faculty in Boston University’s Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and Kilachand Honors College. She has written extensively about, gender and law, feminist legal theory, family law, and civil rights. Her most recent book is Who’s the Bigot? Learning from Conflicts over Marriage and Civil Rights Law. She is coeditor (with Aziza Ahmed) of the “Routledge Companion to Gender and COVID-19” (forthcoming 2023). A member of the Signs board and the Journal of Law and Religion editorial board, she is also on the executive committee for the Association of American Law Schools sections on family and juvenile law and on women in legal education.
Getting Beyond the Outrage Cycles
Believing, at its core, is a law professor’s manifesto, in which Anita Hill does her best to reckon with impossible questions: Why are we still having the same gender-violence debates of decades before? Why are we, both men and women, awash in gender violence from the moment we enter the classroom to the day we sign up for team sports to the second we enter the workforce? Why is the press still calling her, years after the #MeToo movement and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony were supposed to lead to sweeping change? Thirty years after Hill testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee that US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her and her warning went largely ignored, why is her work still necessary?
Like a brilliant lawyer, Hill meticulously lays out her case that gender violence is everywhere. It’s not just sexual assault and intimate-partner violence, she writes. It’s in the schoolyard bullying and the fraternity hazing and the warnings to young women to not drink the punch in college, a message Hill got from an older brother and I, years later, got from my father. It’s in the way that seemingly every institution, when asked to do something or anything about gender violence, has failed. Hill does her best to leave nobody behind; she talks about gender violence in the public and the private sectors, in Congress, in schools, in sports, in fraternities, in Black communities, in Native communities, in LGBTQIA+ communities. Like a lawyer arguing before a court, she wants to overwhelm you with the facts, leaving you with no possible alternative. And they are horrifying facts, such as how the first national survey of sexual harassment wasn’t done by the government but by the women’s magazine Redbook. Then, as now, so much energy simply goes into getting people to care.
After laying out her case, Hill concludes her book with her thoughts on steps the United States can take to begin to address gender violence. There is the US Supreme Court ruling that she wants undone. There are laws she wants changed. She wants the president to appoint a coordinator to work with departments and the public on gender violence, who would report directly to him. Over those sentences hangs the knowledge that our president is Joe Biden, the man who chaired the failed Thomas hearings in the Senate, who finally apologized, meekly, to Hill as part of his presidential campaign. Hill knows she is asking for the impossible. She asks for it anyway.
At first, upon finishing the book, I felt conflicted. This is not a burn-it-all-down tome. This is not a call to end policing or abolish prisons. There is no call for protests in the streets. Nothing Hill asks for is radical; in fact, some of it is deeply practical, like collecting national data on gender-based violence and analyzing it. Anyone can tell you the first step to fixing a problem is getting a grasp of how widespread it is. At first, I chalked it up to Hill being a law professor. But as time passed, I kept coming back to one passage, where Hill decries the myth of the woke generation, an idea that a magical cohort of young people will come along and save us all from gender violence because they won’t tolerate it anymore. This isn’t just wrong, Hill writes, it’s dangerous thinking, the kind that traps our country in cycles of violence. “Our own denial and our own reliance on young people’s idealism,” Hill writes, “amount to complicity in the abuse.”The urge to throw up our hands and go, 'ugh, so awful, so sad, so tragic, I just don’t know what to say' is just as dangerous as ignoring it in the first place.Click To Tweet
In an interview for the book’s release in the New York Times, Hill said, “if we have the right processes, we don’t have to have those slogans.” This is perhaps the boldest part of Hill’s vision, which she relays in Believing. It’s not the assertion that gender violence is everywhere—anyone can say that—but that it is a crisis we can fix. That the urge to throw up our hands and go, ugh, so awful, so sad, so tragic, I just don’t know what to say is just as dangerous as ignoring it in the first place. She’s saying, try something, try anything, maybe try her recommendations, maybe try something else, but dammit try. Nobody is coming to save us; we can only save us from ourselves, as the saying goes. That might not be a terribly rage-inducing conclusion, that every day each of us wakes up and tries a little harder to be a little bit better about doing our part to end gender violence. But Hill has been working on these issues for decades. She has been through many outrage cycles. She is ready to try and take the next step, whatever that might be.
Diana Moskovitz is the investigations editor at the worker-owned media company Defector. She has been reporting on gender violence, in sports and the broader culture, for more than ten years. Her work has appeared in Deadspin, Popula, Jezebel, the Miami Herald, and Cosmopolitan. You can follow her work at Defector’s website or on Twitter.
In Defense of Ourselves, Relentlessly
I am glad to see this powerful new book by Anita Hill published, thirty years after her courageous testimony before the Senate Judiciary hearing on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court. It has been three long decades. I remember vividly watching the hearings on television and then deciding to work with two of my beloved Black feminist colleagues, Elsa Barkley Brown and Deborah King, to craft a response to the sexist and racist treatment Hill received from the phalanx of aging white men who were supposed to judge the nominee but instead seemingly sat in judgement of her.
We mobilized 1600 Black women to sign an almost full-page ad in the New York Times in support of Hill’s testimony and in condemnation of Thomas’s conservative legal and political record. We did so under the banner African American Women in Defense of Ourselves. The issues embedded in Hill’s case that enraged and ignited us were not only sexual harassment but also racism, sexism, and the masculinist intimidation tactics used by some of her interrogators in the Senate. The title of Hill’s new book, Believing, is appropriate because what stories and narrative were legible and convincing were critical variables in her case. Buttons and T-shirts appeared everywhere that read: “We believe Anita.” Her story was completely believable and familiar to millions of women, and to Black women in particular. Most of us had experienced some form of on-the-job harassment, and most of us had not reported it. We were not confident that we would be believed and in fact feared our reporting it might make things worse for us.
Many pundits and Thomas supporters wanted to force an artificial wedge between Hill’s experiences of gender and race. Thomas claimed to be a victim of a “high-tech lynching,” and his overwhelmingly white defenders jumped on board, stripping Hill of her racial status in their male-centered frame of racial injustice. But her experience with harassment, including going public with her story, were graphic illustrations of the politics of intersectionality. Her experiences of Blackness and of being a woman were inextricably linked. Nothing reminded us of that more than the outrageous New York Times opinion piece by Black Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson. In the op-ed he describes Thomas’s harassing behavior as a benign “down-home style of [Black] courting.” After criticizing Hill for making a private matter public, Patterson chastises her, as a Black woman, for airing dirty laundry and undermining a successful Black man. The arrogant chauvinism of his words still sting all these years later: “she has lifted a verbal style that carries only minor sanction in one subcultural context and thrown it in the overheated cultural arena of mainstream, neo-Puritan America.” Sadly, Patterson was not unique in his outlandish argument.Feminists with a no-nonsense, zero-tolerance policy for bs attitude are at the center of many of the most powerful social movements of our time: the Movement for Black Lives, immigration rights, and climate justice.Click To Tweet
So, how far have we really come since 1991? The answer is “a ways,” but not nearly far enough. The #MeToo moment, first sparked by Black activist Tarana Burke, foregrounded the issues of sexual violence and harassment and exposed and exacted some degree of accountability from some of the richest and most powerful sexual predators in the country. Feminists with a no-nonsense, zero-tolerance policy for bs attitude are at the center of many of the most powerful social movements of our time: the Movement for Black Lives, immigration rights, and climate justice. And they are putting in place internal mechanisms of accountability for sexual harassment within movements themselves. Finally politicians have been put on notice that they if they try to bully or silence survivors of sexual harassment or violence, they will be exposed. So, yes, there is progress, but no, it is not nearly enough. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network a person (overwhelmingly women and femmes) is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds in the United States. That is outrageous but perfectly believable. In 2018, 59 percent of women reported unwanted sexual advances from a boss or coworker on the job.
The most recent upsurge in organizing around the issue of sexual harassment and violence reveal what some feminists have known and said for decades. The problem is not exceptional or unusual or an aberration; it is systemic. Our approach has to be systemic, our voices as loud as we can make them, and our organizing relentless. I appreciate Anita Hill as a clear, eloquent, and persistent voice in that chorus. Believing is only her most recent contribution, and it is a powerful one.
Barbara Ransby is the John D. MacArthur Chair and Professor in the Departments of Black studies, gender and women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is an elected fellow in the Society of American Historians, editor in chief of Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, and past president of the National Women’s Studies Association. Ransby is author of three books, including the widely acclaimed Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, and numerous articles.
“What was driving me to write was the silence—so many stories untold and unexamined.”
—Toni Morrison, New Yorker Magazine, 2003
I want to thank Diana Moskovitz, Barbara Ransby, Linda Hirshman, and Linda C. McClain for their thoughtful and generous comments on Believing. It is a pleasure to be in conversation with you about a subject that we all care deeply about. When Toni Morrison died in August of 2019, I had just begun to discuss the book proposal with publishers. I had quoted Ms. Morrison many times, mostly her comments about “illuminations.” In her Nobel Prize acceptance remarks, she spoke of writers “mining, sifting and polishing languages for illuminations.” Very early in the process of writing, I focused on channeling her intentionality and mining the stories I heard and read for what they have to say about our systems and our culture. And though some of the stories I cover in my book have been told, I chose to reexamine them through my own lens as a lawyer, a teacher, a scholar, and a survivor.
Knowing that we’d only begun to understand the depth of the damage gender-based violence does to individuals and to society drove me to write Believing. As Barbara Ransby makes clear, we’ve come “a ways,” but we still have far to go. And as Ransby also points out, understanding the problem as systemic is critical. Gender violence is more than the random outrageous experiences that we read about almost daily in media. To be fully aware of the issue, we must examine the banal along with the astonishing.
A friend recently wrote me to say that, “We have to stop admiring the problem and start changing outcomes.” In order to get “beyond the outrage cycles” that Diana Moskovitz refers to in her commentary on Believing, we must interrogate, as Moskovitz does, the culture that accepts many degrees of gender violence as normal and be prepared to eliminate the structures we put in place that offer gender violence refuge. Knowing that the problem is systemic is not enough. We must define and demand structural and cultural change.Knowing that the problem is systemic is not enough. We must define and demand structural and cultural change. Click To Tweet
I can’t adequately thank Barbara Ransby and the 1,599 other Black scholars who signed the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves declaration. I read it in October of 1991 when it appeared as an ad in the New York Times. I was in the middle of one of the lowest points of my life. Their public acknowledgement of my experience was a lifeline that affirmed my experience as authentically African American and was all the more significant because it came from Black women in academia, another community that I had inhabited for most of my adult life. I doubt that the majority of the New York Times readers had any idea that this intellectual force existed. And yet, there they were, powerfully countering Orlando Patterson’s Times op-ed that was riddled with pretentious, erroneous, and harmful claims about Black women’s tolerance of sexual harassment passing as scholarship. The African American Women in Defense of Ourselves manifesto exposed the racist misogyny behind the senators’ flawed process and how racism and misogyny and violence combined to imperil Black women, past and present.
Though one commentator cavalierly described the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing as “the most wretchedly aspersive race and gender scandal of recent times,” I knew there was much more to the Senate’s treatment of my experience. Right after the hearing, people from all over the world reached out to me. And the calls, letters, and now emails have not stopped. I have heard from women of all ages. I hear increasingly from men, some of whom are victims and survivors, others who want to be allies, who understand that patriarchy is at the core of gender violence. And my own millennial and Gen-Z students, many of whom are nonbinary, trans, and/or queer tell me how difficult it is to define what equality and justice are for them in a world that doesn’t recognize that they are at greater risk for violence because of their identities. I’ve learned that workplace sexual harassment, which many wrongly assume only involves abusive language, has links to sexual assault, rape, intimate partner violence, incest, street harassment, bullying, stalking… . All are forms of physical, emotional and psychological gender violence that persist in our society. I committed to making sure that Believing was inclusive of different experiences and that the array of people who experience it were seen.
People want answers to questions about why progress was so slow. But all four of the writers who have offered their comments know that simplistic responses will not dismantle the structures that support complex problems. Linda C. McClain captures my concern about our failure to see the full danger of the threat of gender violence. Yes, our basic human right to safety is at stake and, in the United States, civil rights are being violated by abusive behavior. Our legal systems, criminal and civil, need to be reformed to address these violations. But how do we begin to approach solving a threat to our democracy that politicians fail to recognize as such? Mobilizing our outrage to “get different results” on so many fronts is not going to be easy. My hope is that in seeing the enormity of the crises, we begin to see gender violence as both the literal and figurative foot on women’s necks. It must be approached as a matter of public concern if women and those who are marginalized by their gender identity in combination with other identity factors have any chance at gaining social, economic, and political equality. We must ask ourselves why the problem persists even as society and women’s roles have “advanced.” Intersectional and multiple harms call for intersectional and multifaceted solutions. And I advocate for policy that addresses the need for structural and cultural change that begins to answer that question.
I know that I’ve only scratched the surface in Believing. I lean heavily on policy as a pathway to resolving the issues I raise and fall short on recognizing many of the activists and advocates who have gotten us to this point. My friend Freada Kapor Klein reminds me of the work of the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion (AASC) that she cofounded with Lynn Wehrli and Elizabeth Cohn-Stuntz in 1976. AASC argued that sexual harassment was a form of violence against women that reflected and reinforced women's subordinate status in society. And they linked “sexism, racism, and classism, and identified sexual harassment as an important tool for the enforcement of these systems of dominance.” AASC both theorized sexual harassment and fought directly against it in workplaces, laying the groundwork for law and policy that would come later in the decade as well as models for direct action in workplaces that would take decades to develop and have yet to be adopted on a majority of job sites.
Thirty years ago, Nobel Laureate Morrison wrote that “any kind of lasting illumination” from the Thomas confirmation hearing must come from a “focus … on the history that is routinely ignored or played down or unknown.” With Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, we now have two Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that shed light on gender-based violence.
We also have the works of researchers as well as the witnesses, litigants, and judges to make sense of the issue. I am proud to be included among the writers who have shared their stories in memoirs and who Linda Hirshman lists as such in her comments. At the risk of overlooking many others, I would add Michelle Bowdler and Salamisha Tillet to the list of those who have changed the way we think and talk about gender violence. I’m flattered that Believing reminds Hirshman of her own book on sexual abuse and harassment. She and I both recognize that no one book can serve as the basis for all of the lasting illuminations that are needed to fully understand and solve the problem. But those of us who have written about our experience with violence have made a singular contribution to the collective thinking about the issue. Our unique contribution to the understanding of gender-based violence comes from who we were before and during our experiences of abuse and who we are after it, not the abusive experience itself. And thanks to Moskovitz, McLain, Hirshman, and Ransby—and other scholars—lasting illuminations into the issue of gender violence will continue to be revealed.
Anita Hill is University Professor of Law, Social Policy and Women’s Studies at Heller Graduate School, Brandeis University; chair of the Hollywood Commission; and Of Counsel at Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll. The youngest of thirteen children from a farm in Oklahoma, Hill received her B.S. from Oklahoma State University and her J.D. from Yale Law School. She began her career in private practice in Washington, D.C. There she also worked at the U. S. Education Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1989, Hill became the first African American to be tenured at the University of Oklahoma, College of Law.