Sunday, March 23, 2014

Speaking Truth to Power

Opening scene: A telephone plays a voice message. It's a message from Ginny Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, asking Anita Hill if she wouldn't perhaps like to consider apologizing to Clarence Thomas for what she did to him in 1991.  

You may know I'm a lifelong Legal Services lawyer. One of the first cases I remember doing was back in 1979 or 1980, an unemployment case where my client had quit her job because of sexual harassment from the boss. Demands for oral sex, suggestive comments, and so forth. Our argument was that the sexual harassment gave her good cause for voluntary leaving, and we won.

Probably for many people the first they heard of sexual harassment was when Anita Hill came forward in 1991 and testified about how Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. It was so sudden, because his confirmation hearings were already over, and then were reopened over a full weekend. I know that it wasn't only people like me, with an insatiable appetite for both law and politics, who were glued to the TV.

We know the outcome: the Republicans, particularly the vile Arlen Spector, Orrin Hatch, and Strom Thurmond, a man who, if the world were arranged according to his preferences, would be eligible to own Clarence Thomas, attacked Hill with every imaginable innuendo and insult and managed to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, where he continues to disgrace the institution.

What most people don't know is what happened to Anita Hill. I just got back from watching Anita: Speaking Truth to Power at the Green Mountain Film Festival. It goes inside the hearings, literally taking us backstage as Anita Hill is escorted into the committee room, and show us her life as a law professor before and after the Thomas hearings. It also, if you were watching, will reawaken the feelings of outrage you had over twenty years ago.

What happened to Anita Hill is what happens to a lot of people. She was just going through her life, doing her job, working hard, and things were pretty good. She was never an activist until she was forced into the public eye, forced to confront what happens when the male power structure decides to silence a woman for telling the truth.

It's clear from the movie that Anita Hill isn't glad about what happened to her. It was painful at the time, her job, her career, and her life were threatened, and she was uprooted from a successful professorship  not far from where she grew up in rural Oklahoma.

What she gained, though, was not only perspective, but an activist mission that wasn't there before. Hill's experience has led her to a career of advocacy for women's equality and opportunity that was not there before. We are no longer where we were in 1991, when Senator Alan Simpson could openly refer to "this sexual harassment crap". Anita Hill shows us politicians, judges, law professors, and young women and girls who have been moved by Anita Hill's experience and efforts. 

Anita Hill opened in New York Friday night, but if you can get away from work for a couple of hours you have a chance to see it in Montpelier this Friday at 11:45. You'll be glad you did. 

Oh yeah, in case you're wondering, it's still absolutely clear: Anita Hill told the truth, Clarence Thomas lied. 

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Blogger Peter Hyatt said...


I am wondering how it is clear that Anita Hill told the truth and Clarence Thomas lied.

thank you,

Peter Hyatt

April 03, 2014 7:10 AM  

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