Los Angeles Review of Books

Writing for The Spectator in 1992, journalist David Brock coined the phrase “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” to describe Anita Hill. Brock offered the epithet to explain why a well-respected law professor would accuse her former supervisor, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment before Congress on national television. According to Thomas’s supporters, Hill distilled the most feared of feminine flaws: scorned, vengeful, and desperate for attention. For this she received years of hate mail, death threats, and media attacks.

Hill’s advocates were also enraged. They chastised the Senate Judiciary Committee for its initial disregard of her sexual harassment allegations. After learning about Hill’s accusations, women from the House of Representatives marched over to the Senate to demand action. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder declared, “America’s women really want to see this body doing something for them rather than to them.” In scores, protesters opposed the nomination, chanting “Stop Thomas Now!” on the steps of Capitol Hill.

On October 15, 1991, the Senate confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52-48, which would have seemed to settle the debate. But people continued to plead Hill’s case, even years after Thomas became an established part of the Supreme Court. In 2011, Hunter College organized a conference called “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later.” Speakers and contributors included Gloria Steinem, Catherine MacKinnon, Maureen Dowd, Edwidge Danticat, as well as other reputed feminist and legal scholars. All the participants proudly proclaimed, “I still believe Anita Hill!”

Freida Mock’s documentary, Anita Speaking Truth to Power, is the latest part of this effort, seeking not only to rehabilitate Anita Hill’s character, but to revive her as a feminist hero. In the film, Mock tells a triumphant story about a woman from rural Oklahoma who stood up to the cronies of Washington. Through the film’s optimistic arc, Hill emerges as the champion, shining a light on the previously dark corners of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

As some remember well, Hill worked under Clarence Thomas while he served as the Assistant Secretary of Education in the Office of Civil Rights and then as the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Following Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991, the FBI contacted Hill as part of his background check. She revealed that Thomas had sexually harassed her on a regular basis throughout their working relationship — pestering her for dates, showing her pornographic videos and photographs, making references to his penis size. These allegations leaked to the press, and weeks later, under pressure from the public, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing in October 1991. Hill, having settled back in Norman, Oklahoma as a commercial contracts law professor, received a subpoena to testify.

The first half of Anita centers on Hill’s epic nine-hour testimony before the Committee. The footage from the hearing, over which then-Senator Joe Biden presides, is damning. As Hill remembers, not one of the Senators appears prepared, and their questions range from simply ignorant, on the good end of the spectrum, to hostile, on the bad. Few of the Committee members seem to understand that Hill was a subpoenaed witness, not a plaintiff prosecuting a legal claim with a requisite burden of proof.

The visual alone is uncomfortable: an imposing row of 12 white men — dressed in dark suits, an American flag raised above their heads — sit opposite a single African-American woman. She is armed with only a microphone and a glass of water. Even if the Senators had conducted themselves with the utmost civility and sensitivity, the stark power imbalance would have been difficult to overcome.

But we know that is not what happened. Instead, we watch as the Republicans, led by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, test the limits of Hill’s patience. Specter demands to know if the “most embarrassing” comment from Thomas involved “a woman with large breasts,” which he notes is “not so bad.” Even after Hill explains that it was not merely the description of breasts that she found offensive but also the description of the woman having sex with multiple people and animals, Specter remains unsympathetic. He points out that by simply describing the sex acts, Thomas was not, as Hill had testified, necessarily asking her to watch pornography with him and that the invitation to do so was only “in [her] mind.” Hill concedes that was an inference she made.  

It is clear that the men find Hill’s allegations ridiculous. Senator Howell Heflin, perhaps channeling the questions of viewers from home, remarks, “In order to tell whether you are telling falsehoods, I’ve got to determine your motivations [. . .] Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex?” Hill answers in the negative. The Senators force her to repeat again and again the details of the most sensational episodes of harassment: Thomas’s comments about pubic hair on his Coke can and his references to porn star “Long Dong Silver.” At one point, when the testosterone reaches a fevered pitch, Senator Ted Kennedy calls for a little bit more decorum. That is the high water mark of any defense from the Democrats.

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Between excerpts from the hearing, Mock interviews early Hill defenders, notably Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree and journalist heavyweights Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer. They reflect on the days before the public understood unwelcome sexual attention as offensive, much less a part of institutional sex discrimination. Mock is careful to show the Hill camp as irreproachably reasonable. Ogletree is surrounded by austere law books. Abramson speaks in deliberate monotone, never betraying a smile or a frown.

Hill herself is the ideal witness. Throughout the nine hours of testimony, her story remains consistent. No matter how cringeworthy the question, she answers straightforwardly, with unshakeable poise. As further evidence of Hill’s soundness of mind, Mock tracks her professional achievements, from high school valedictorian to Yale Law School student, to rising star at the EEOC to the first tenured African-American professor at the University of Oklahoma. With hindsight, it is inconceivable that anyone believed Hill to be “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Even Brock eventually recanted on his accusations against Hill in his 2001 book Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. Discrimination is, after all, an irrational impulse.

It is the Senators, who take turns daring her to utter the words “penis” and “pubic hair,” that Mock exposes as squeamishly immature. They cannot look Hill in the eye or listen without fidgeting. By the time Clarence Thomas finally takes the stand and accuses the Committee of “high-tech lynching,” his statement appears empty and melodramatic, an appeal to emotion alone. “This hearing should never happen in America,” Thomas says, “It is a circus.”

Through these scenes, Mock reverses the traditional script of employment discrimination cases where the employee is cast as emotionally unstable. Because these cases often come down to the question of motive, it is common for employers to dismiss accusations of discrimination as driven by hysteria or hypersensitivity, on the one hand, or by a desire for money or vengeance, on the other. But from Mock’s perspective, it’s Hill’s critics that are crazy. The film’s opening scene, a rambling voicemail from Ginni Thomas in January 2010, imploring Hill to explain “why you did what you did to my husband” and demanding an apology, is a fitting introduction to what Mock sees as senseless discriminatory animus.  

Victim blaming is rampant in civil rights cases, but it is perhaps more pronounced in sexual harassment suits, where solidarity among employees can be difficult to build. Unlike claims involving discriminatory company-wide practices, such as equal pay, promotion criteria, or leave policy, sexual harassment claims usually affect a limited number of individuals. The details of harassment are embarrassing to divulge and often kept secret from other coworkers. Furthermore, sexual harassment plaintiffs, like victims of sexual crimes, can be suspected of having consented to, or even having invited, the behavior that they later allege to be illegal. For these reasons, women facing sexual harassment are more easily isolated and targeted. The skepticism toward Hill’s allegations, in many ways, is less surprising than the outpour of sympathy and support she received.  

In addition to outside observers, Mock also interviews Hill from Hill’s current office at Brandeis University, where she is professor of law. Despite her stint at the DOE and the EEOC, Hill says that she saw herself as a Washington outsider who was largely unaware of the political firestorm she had set off with her accusations against Thomas. Whereas things made sense in quiet little Norman, they became confusing and distorted back East. Mock, possibly at Hill’s behest, does not tread lightly on this small-girl-in-a-big-city theme. The camera follows Hill as she gives a tour of the family farm, where Hill traces early memories of walking a quarter of a mile to fetch mail. Mock includes footage and photographs from family events, including the 65th wedding anniversary of Hill’s parents.  

The emphasis on Hill’s wholesome background, however, is over the top. While there may be value to contesting the “scorned woman” stereotype by showing Hill as a credible and intelligent professional, Mock wants her audience to know that Hill was essentially a “nice girl” from a “good family.” But this kind of reasoning threatens to resurrect the myth of the worthy victim, dwelling unnecessarily on Hill’s innocent origins. It leads us away from questions about the harasser’s conduct and shifts the focus back to the victim’s character. Even if Hill, given her religious upbringing and strong moral compass, was naive compared to seasoned and cynical Washingtonians, the temptation to see her as a lamb walking into a lion’s den seems reductionist. She was not any less deserving of harassment, or of retaliation for speaking up, simply because she lead a relatively sheltered childhood.

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After the Congressional hearing ends, the film’s second half takes an abrupt turn. Instead of casting Thomas’s confirmation as a defeat for women at the workplace, Mock frames Hill as an inspiration for change. We see that in the following years, women speak out against sexual harassment in greater numbers. Admitting that the hearing changed the course of her life, Hill begins to tour the country to talk about discrimination. The number of sexual harassment charges climbs at the EEOC. Hill speaks at various podiums — conferences, graduations, church events — to eager applause. There are montages of women getting along. While the last half hour has some elements of an underdog sports movie, is it impossible not to yield to the warm feelings of female solidarity and empowerment. By the end, we are all Anita Hill fans.       

But what makes Hill such an important figure even today is that she diverges from the usual trajectory of feminist role models who are able to shatter glass ceilings by sheer force of brilliance and determination. Hill is not an example of perseverance and ultimate triumph within the establishment. Her standoff with mainstream Washington over 20 years ago is perhaps why she remains a darling of critical legal theorists like Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Williams, both of whom contributed articles to the “Anita Hill 20 Years Later” conference. In many ways, Hill’s story is more familiar and mundane: she lost a job she loved because of discrimination. This happens to women every day.

When we talk about women’s rights in the workplace today, the conversation tends to be a narrow one. The post-Lean In world offers, as with so many other things, two tracks of feminism: one for the elite, which monopolizes the star-studded attention, and one for the rest. But Hill seems to resist this myopic view. She champions organizations like Hollaback! and Girls for Gender Equality that work with women of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds to fight not only discrimination in the workplace but harassment on the street, intimidation in schools, and unequal access to educational opportunities. She sees these issues as part of the same institutional problem that plagues women at work. And she’s right. A female executive will have leverage in the boardroom once she can walk to her car without being catcalled.

It is a breath of fresh air that Mock, and Hill as her heroine, recognize that the struggle for gender equality cannot be so easily compartmentalized. To bridge the many gaps between working men and women — the pay gap, the promotion gap, the ambition gap, the confidence gap, the mental health gap — we cannot merely invest in “Negotiation 101” boot camps and ego-building Ropes Courses for our female managers. If only the battle could be won by the strength of a few Special-Ops Forces at the top.      

More importantly, Hill’s story reminds us of a simple fact that many TED-talk feminists try to avoid: discrimination exists. No matter how well women navigate the rules of corporate culture, they can be confronted with the realities of institutional sexism at any time. Despite Hill’s stellar resume, her competence was questioned the moment she reported sexual harassment. She was attacked as a mediocre and attention-seeking employee who had succeeded only under the grace and cover of Clarence Thomas. Her ambition, which may have secured her the position as Assistant to the Chairman of the EEOC, appeared immediately suspicious. It is hardly surprising, given these risks, that women still fear the consequences of professional overreaching.

Hill’s testimony 23 years ago still matters because speaking truth to power is a lesson worth remembering in an era of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps empowerment. Anticipating management’s whims, self-help materials compete, in the name of feminism, to castigate female employees for their embarrassingly low self-esteem, their grating verbal ticks, and their overactive minds. But what would happen to the Lean In industry if Sheryl Sandberg filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC tomorrow? Would the conversation change from identifying the ways in which women hold themselves back? Would we finally be forced to talk about structural inequality?

Or would we, clinging to the Lean In promise, start probing Sandberg’s singular, interpersonal failings? Asking whether she was really as good of an executive as she appeared from the outside? The instinct is understandable. It may be too difficult to let go of the hope that women themselves have had the power to ward off discrimination all along, that they could go anywhere by clicking their heels together and repeating their affirmations. There is something magically alluring, even foundationally American, about the will to succeed against all odds. Moments where we are able to forget the pessimistic weight of history can be freeing, and this is why there are days we need the heroines who have made it big. But for the other days, the days where we have a rational engagement with the odds, we need Anita.

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Ming-Qi Chu is a workers’ rights lawyer in New York. She is a founding editor of the Columbia Journal of Race and Law. 

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