There’s a point in the new documentary, “ANITA,” where Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) questions Anita Hill.
“In trying to determine whether you are telling falsehoods or not, I’ve got to determine what your motivation might be,” Heflin asks at the 1991 Capitol Hill hearing. “Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a martyr complex? Do you see yourself coming out of this as a hero in the civil rights movement?”
Hill, composed as ever, calmly answers, “No.”
Imagine if a male member of Congress tried that now: Feminist Twitter would nail him to the wall. There would be countless think pieces about institutionalized sexism and misogynoir. One envisions Amy Klobuchar, Dianne Feinstein and Mazie Hirono (all current members of the Senate Judiciary Committee) initiating the sort of withering, civilized take-down that would send C-Span ratings through the roof — okay, relatively speaking — and make “Daily Show” writers whoop with glee. Feinstein, especially. We know she doesn’t take kindly to mansplaining or condescension because it’s on video.
And maybe that’s a measure of how far we’ve come in the 23 years since Hill testified about allegations of sexual harassment against her former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission colleague, Clarence Thomas. Hill’s credibility was impugned.
“ANITA,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and opens Friday in D.C., states that Hill was essentially put on trial when the hearings were supposed to be an examination of Thomas’s character because President George H.W. Bush had nominated him to the Supreme Court. Yet there was innuendo suggesting that she was just seeking romantic revenge against Thomas.
To a new generation of women, in the age of “Feministing,” “Feministe” and “Black Girl Dangerous,” Heflin’s questions are dumbfounding, and you will look at the screen and think, “He can’t be serious.”
Turns out, he wasn’t, entirely.
“There are different ways to see what Howell Heflin was trying to accomplish,” Hill said in a recent phone interview from her office at Brandeis University, just outside Boston. “He was really pre-empting things from being asked by people in a more hostile way.”
Heflin and Hill knew it was ridiculous, and yet, there was no escaping it.
“These were things that were being said out there,” Hill continued. “And I do believe maybe it wasn’t the most artful way of doing it, but he was giving me a chance to respond to those things that was less [confrontational] than the hostile people and the accusatory people might be doing later on had he not raised the question. It’s a technique that was lost on us at the time. There was just so much hostility and so much seeming disconnect between our experiences and our lives and what they seemed to be able to understand and comprehend.”
In the 1990s, Hill, a college law professor, was subjected to a round of media slut-shaming so intense it spawned a bestselling book, David Brock’s “The Real Anita Hill.”
Sparked from an article he’d written in the “American Spectator,” it was Brock who coined the phrase “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” as a way to discredit Hill. He later founded Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog group, and has since recanted what he wrote, and he publicly apologized in his book, “Blinded by the Right.”
Hill was the target of attacks, not just in the form of hate mail and death threats, but from the all-male judiciary committee that really didn’t understand what it meant to be sexually harassed.
“Sen. [Arlen] Specter, he took an adversarial role,” Hill said in the film, referring to the Pennsylvanian who died in 2012, after serving 30 years in the Senate. “It was clear Specter had come in with a closed mind. He wasn’t open to hearing the facts. That was a real disappointment to people that didn’t understand. In fact, they thought that I was on trial.”
What’s so different from 1991? Women still haven’t achieved parity in Congress or most of American politics. They comprise 20 percent of the Senate and roughly 18 percent of the House. At the current rate of progress, it will take another 500 years for women to reach equal representation in politics, “The Nation” noted recently. Attitudes toward issues like sexual harassment and sexual assault have improved, but institutions still fail when it comes to protecting women.
“Even in 1991, there were those people who understood what was going on, and they understood the importance of what I was trying to do in terms of testifying,” Hill said. “So I had my supporters back in 1991. They were in the minority. It’s not only gratifying to me personally, but it’s gratifying to know that as a country, as a society, we can evolve. We can take in a lot of information and process it, and not necessarily be locked into our feelings.”
Now we’re fighting battles over street harassment and an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military. And it can seem as though progress moves at a glacial pace. Jessica Valenti, founder of “Feministing,” still has to explain why it’s important to identify rape culture when RAINN, the nation’s largest advocate for rape victims, recently told the White House that rape culture didn’t exist.
In a more subtle, but no less frustrating case, a report by lawyers for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blamed the “Bridgegate” scandal on former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly’s lack of judgment because she’d been dumped by his campaign manager, Bill Stepien. Said the “New York Times:” “… the report commissioned by Mr. Christie and released Thursday doubles down on a strategy of portraying Ms. Kelly as duplicitous, weeping frequently and dependent on men for approval and stability.”
In some ways, the atmosphere is still just as adversarial as ever.
Take for example, the case of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who received no jail time after he was convicted of sexual misconduct and accused of sexual assault. Rep. Jackie Speier called it a “mockery of military justice.”
“I think one of the things that was so disheartening to people in 1991 is that the Senate just didn’t seem to take the issue of sexual harassment seriously at all,” Hill said. “They didn’t take it seriously on how it reflected on the character of a person, especially a person who was going to be judging these kinds of claims. But they did seem to be very dismissive of women’s experiences and the consequences to women when they go through these kinds of behaviors and experiences.
“The General Sinclair situation makes me understand, specifically, how important process is. The process that he was tried under has certainly been held up to a lot of scrutiny … Process really matters, and I think a lot of people, the public, believe the process failed. I think that’s critical for us. This debate that’s going on in Congress really will impact women’s lives in the military. We know what the numbers are of women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted in the armed services. They’re appallingly high and the numbers of women who have come forward are appallingly low, which means to me that we don’t have processes that are safe and secure or that they feel are a safe and secure environment for them to come forward.”
This film isn’t a critical look at what’s wrong with Congress, or even the progress that’s been made when it comes to workplace policies and how they affect women. It’s a story about Hill, what happened in 1991, and why she decided to come forward. It’s a statement that suggests she may have lost the initial battle, but she, and women in general, are winning the war against sexism. “ANITA” director Freida Mock will take questions at screenings Friday and Saturday at E Street Cinema.
After a screening in New York, there was a clamoring among women in the audience for the documentary to be released for educational use.
“That’s wonderful,” Hill said. “It makes you feel like as important as it is to be in the room talking with people, they’re also thinking about what they can do with it, and how they would like to see it used, and that helps me a lot.”