Anita Hill is no feminist heroine.
A week ago, in the tense climax of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s
hearings into the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the
important issue of sexual harassment, one of the solid innovations of
contemporary feminism, was used and abused for political purposes.
In an atrocious public spectacle
worthy of the show trials of a totalitarian regime, uncorroborated allegations
about verbal exchanges ten years old were paraded on the nation’s television
screens. The Judiciary Committee
should have thoroughly investigated the charges but conducted the proceedings
privately. It was an appalling
injustice to both Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas to pit them and their
supporters against each other. The
Senate turned itself into the Roman Colosseum, with decadent, jaded patricians
waving thumbs down over a blood-drenched arena.
Five years ago, because of the
absence of a sexual harassment policy at my university, I initiated a workshop
on the question in my women’s studies class.
I collected sexual harassment guidelines and documents from
Philadelphia-area universities, distributed them to the class, and guided the
formulation of proposals, which we presented to the dean.
Such guidelines are crucial not only to warn potential offenders but to
help women stand their ground in specific encounters.
In our democratic society, however, we must also protect the rights of
the accused. Frivolous claims of
misconduct do occur.
I listened carefully to Anita
Hill’s testimony at the Senate hearings.
I found her to be sincere and intelligent.
But I reject her claim of sexual harassment.
What exactly transpired between her and Clarence Thomas we can never
know. That Hill was distressed by
references to sex may indeed be the case. But
since they were never threatening and never led to pressure for a date, I fail
to see how they constitute sexual harassment.
Many religious men, as well as women, find conversations about sex or
pornography inappropriate and unacceptable.
This is not a gender issue. It
is our personal responsibility to define what we will and will not tolerate.
The sexual revolution of my Sixties
generation broke the ancient codes of decorum that protected respectable ladies
from profanation by foul language. We
demanded an end to the double standard. What
troubles me about the “hostile workplace” category of sexual harassment
policy is that women are being returned to their old status of delicate flowers
who must be protected from assault by male lechers.
It is anti-feminist to ask for special treatment for women.
America is still burdened by its
Puritan past, which erupts again and again in public scenarios of sexual
inquisition, as in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
If Anita Hill was thrown for a loop by sexual banter, that’s her
problem. If by the age of
twenty-six, as a graduate of the Yale Law School, she could find no convincing
way to signal her displeasure and disinterest, that’s her deficiency.
We cannot rely on rigid rules and regulations to structure everything in
our lives. There is a blurry line between our professional and private
selves. We are sexual beings, and
as Freud demonstrated, eroticism pervades every aspect of our consciousness.
Hill woodenly related the content of
conversations without any reference to their context or tone. The senators never asked about joking, smiles, facial
expressions, hers as well as his. Every
social encounter is a game being played by two parties.
I suspect Hill’s behavior was compliant and, to use her own word about
a recent exchange with a Thomas friend, “passive.”
Judging by her subsequent cordial behavior toward Thomas, Hill chose to
put her career interests above feminist principle.
She went along to get along. Hence
it is hypocritical of her, ten years later, to invoke feminist principle when
she did not have the courage to stand on it before.
For feminists to make a heroine out of Hill is to insult all those other
women who have taken a bolder, more confrontational course and forfeited career
In this case, the sexual harassment
issue was a smoke screen, cynically exploited to serve another issue, abortion
rights. Although I am firmly
pro-choice, I think there should be no single-issue litmus test for nominees to
the Supreme Court. And the strategy
backfired. Thomas, who had seemed
bland and evasive for the prior hundred days of the hearings, emerged under fire
with vastly increased stature. He
was passionate, forceful, dignified.
Make no mistake: it was not a White
House conspiracy that saved this nomination.
It was Clarence Thomas himself. After
eight hours of Hill’s testimony, he was driven as low as any man could be.
But step by step, with sober, measured phrases, he regained his position
and turned the momentum against his accusers.
It was one of the most powerful moments I have ever witnessed on
television. Giving birth to himself, Thomas reenacted his own credo of
Paglia, Camille. 1992. "The
Strange Case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill."
In Sex, Art, and American Culture. Vintage Books.