The Change Anita Hill Created

The Change Anita Hill Created

Confirmation, the new HBO movie about the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has brought the name and legacy of Anita Hill back into the spotlight. Those strange and painful hearings have never been forgotten, but it’s been a while since Facebook was filled with posts about Hill and Thomas — many, now, from people who had never heard Hill’s testimony before.

Watching Confirmation took me back to October 1991. I was 16 years old, living in St. Paul and attending Catholic high school — where, the next fall, I would cast my straw ballot for President George H.W. Bush, causing my dad to moan that he’d failed as a father.

As longstanding Democrats and, in many cases, outspoken feminists, my family members were inclined to support Hill and anyone else who called Thomas’s nomination into question. In school, on the other hand, the message was that whether or not Thomas had behaved inappropriately, the only question that really mattered was how he felt about Roe vs. Wade.

I vividly remember the pop-culture touchstones of the hearings: the ubiquitous images of Hill and Thomas hunched over the witness table, Chris Rock as “Long Dong Silver,” and the question regarding whether the oft-repeated word was properly pronounced HAIR-as-ment or har-ASS-ment. I had a vague sense that some news anchors were avoiding the latter pronunciation because introducing one more reference to the sub-waist anatomy — even sandwiched into the middle of a legal term — was just too much at that point.

Thinking back, now, the ambiguity seems significant. The fact that the media couldn’t arrive at a consensus regarding the word’s pronunciation was telling regarding just how rarely the word was used in news coverage — or anywhere else, for that matter. The whole idea of “harassment” in that sense was novel to a lot of people. No matter who you believed, at a bare minimum you had to get your mind around the concept simply to understand what was being said.

No, Hill wasn’t saying she’d been raped or groped — in fact, she wasn’t alleging that Thomas, when he was her boss, had touched her at all. Nor, it was established, was she saying that he’d explicitly asked her to have sex with him. What she was saying was that he had used talk about sex to intimidate her, to make her uncomfortable, to suggest that he desired a sexual relationship with her, and to titillate himself. In other words, harassment. Sexual harassment.

Anita Hill stood up and said that happened, and that it was wrong. In a narrow vote, the Senate voted to confirm Clarence Thomas as a justice of the Supreme Court, which he remains to this day — then one of nine, now one of eight.

A montage of news clips that plays over the closing credits of Confirmation documents the gains made by women, including women of color, in the years shortly following the Thomas hearings. While I benefited from those gains insofar as I lived in a nation with a more representative governing body, you’d have to play a lot of news clips before you got to one that discussed the impact of the hearings on white teenage boys in Minnesota.

Still, the hearings did have an impact on me — and on everyone in America. Even kids like me, who felt geographically and socially removed from what was happening in Washington, came out of that period knowing on some level what sexual harassment was and why it was wrong. Needless to say, sexual harassment didn’t stop, but after Anita Hill’s testimony, wide swaths of America found themselves with words that they’d never heard before, and ways — multiple ways — to pronounce them.

After Anita Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment was part of the common American vocabulary. It’s shocking to think that it hadn’t been previously, but the hard cold truth is that kids like me hadn’t really heard the words “sexual harassment” before we heard them from Anita Hill. For many, perhaps, it ended there — but others, after those hearings, had real, precise words they could use to identify something that they previously might have been told was called “just having a little fun.”

Jay Gabler