Anita Hill and Sandra Fluke: Does 20 years really make a difference?

Tonight while I was surfing around looking for updates on the Malaysian jet still missing somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam – or perhaps somewhere else – I happened upon a long story in the New York Times about the new documentary about Anita Hill.  Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s review of the movie is actually a long profile of Hill.  I’m very happy that Hill allowed the documentary to be made because it means that a whole new generation of young men and women will be introduced to a remarkable person.

Back then there was no social media, no Facebook, no Twitter but the word still spread quickly among women that someone was about to accuse a nominee for the United States Supreme Court of sexual harassment.  No one knew exactly who she was, but we knew this was going to be important.  I was in Washington, D.C. that day at a meeting, but I remember sitting in a bar that afternoon with several other women all of us transfixed by what was happening on the television.  I was astounded that none of the men, and the Judiciary Committee was all white men, had any clue.  Stolberg puts it this way

“I think this event changed the course of her life and gave her a public mission that she took on,” said Fred Lawrence, the Brandeis president and a Yale Law School classmate of Ms. Hill’s. “It’s not a duty that she volunteered for, but I think she understood that the circumstances had put her in a unique role, and gave her a voice.”

The hearings were a surreal spectacle, as senators prodded an obviously uncomfortable Ms. Hill through awkward testimony about penis size, pubic hair and a pornographic film star known as Long Dong Silver — shocking public discourse at the time. When the hearings ended, Ms. Hill returned to teaching commercial law at the University of Oklahoma, trying, as she says in the film, to find “a new normal.” It proved difficult.

Ms. Hill at the hearings.

Ms. Hill at the hearings.

And I think every women who watched the hearings remembers that electric blue suit.

There were thousands of letters of support, but also death threats, threats to her job. Conservative state lawmakers wanted her fired; fortunately, she had tenure. Even years later, she felt “a discomfort,” she said. One dean confided that he had tired of hearing colleagues at other schools remark, “Isn’t that where Anita Hill is?”

In Washington, her testimony reverberated. Sexual harassment claims shot up. “Our phones were ringing off the hook with people willing to come forward who had been suffering in silence,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, where Ms. Hill serves on its board.

Congress passed a law allowing victims of sex discrimination to sue for damages, just as victims of racial discrimination could. Waves of women began seeking public office. In 1991, there were two female senators. Today there are 20.

Clarence Thomas was confirmed even though, as Hill puts it

“I believe in my heart that he shouldn’t have been confirmed,” she said in a recent interview, acknowledging that it irritates her to see Justice Thomas on the court. “I believe that the information I provided was clear, it was verifiable, it was confirmed by contemporaneous witnesses that I had talked with. And I think what people don’t understand is that it does go to his ability to be a fair and impartial judge.”

And there are still those who believe she made the whole story up. Then I started thinking about a more recent woman’s experience with Congress. This is from a story in the Daily Beast.

Rep. Darrell Issa’s Thursday hearing went off the rails early. “What I want to know,” demanded Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, as she looked at the all-male panel of clerics before her, “is, where are the women?”

The hearing, titled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience,” was about religious freedom, Issa said, but it took place against the backdrop of a national controversy regarding the White House’s mandate that all employers provide birth control as part of their insurance plans.

As it happens, there was one woman present prepared to testify on the issue of birth control. Sandra Fluke, a 30-year-old Georgetown University Law School student, had been contacted earlier in the week by committee minority leaders after Democrats saw a video of her speaking about the mandate at the National Press Club on February 9.

Sandra Fluke

Sandra Fluke

Congress had a woman to ask the question, but the panel was all men.  Fluke went on to testify at an informal hearing arranged by Democratic women.  The Huffington Post described it this way

This week she received almost rock-star treatment as the lone witness at an unofficial Democratic-sponsored hearing. While the rest of the Capitol was mostly empty, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, three other Democrats and dozens of mainly young women supporters crowded into a House office building room to applaud Fluke as she spoke of the importance of reproductive health care to women.

Prominently displayed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., was a photo of five religious leaders, all men and all appearing at the invitation of the Republican majority, testifying last week with Fluke visible in the background, sitting in the visitors’ section.

Democrats pounced on that image of a hearing discussing contraceptive rights being dominated by men while the one person Democrats had asked to appear on the witness stand, a woman, was turned away. Pelosi, D-Calif., said they had since heard from 300,000 people urging that women’s voices be heard on the issue.

“We almost ought to thank the chairman for the lack of judgment he had,” in denying a seat to Fluke, Pelosi said.

Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had said at last week’s hearing that the panel’s focus was on whether the administration policy was a violation of religious freedom. He said at the time that Fluke, invited by Democrats in her capacity as former head of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, was not qualified to speak on the religious rights question.

“I’m an American woman who uses contraceptives,” Fluke said, when asked Thursday by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., about her qualifications to speak on the issue.

So maybe we have made progress in the years since Anita Hill.  Some Republican men don’t seemed to have learned much, but there were plenty of woman and men in Congress who wanted to hear Fluke’s testimony.  And we can thank Anita Hill for her part in making change happen.

Photograph of Anita Hill: American Film Foundation

Photograph of Sandra Fluke:  Getty Images

Daily Beast story: Matthew DeLucca

Huffington Post story: Jim Abrams

Women, gun violence, and domestic violence

According to the op-ed by Nicolas Kristof in last Sunday’s New York Times Review,

Sometimes there’s a perception that domestic violence is insoluble, because it’s such a complex, messy problem with women who are culprits as well as victims. Yet, in fact, this is an area where the United States has seen enormous progress.

Based on victimization surveys, it seems that violence by men against their intimate partners has fallen by almost two-thirds since 1993. Attitudes have changed as well. In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.

A generation ago, police didn’t typically get involved. “We would say, ‘don’t make us come back, or you’re both going to jail,’ ” recalled Capt. Leonard Dreyer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. In contrast, sheriff’s officers now routinely arrest the aggressor.

I have to admit that I am skeptical, but hope that his numbers are correct.  Even Kristof opens his column with ” [w]hat strikes one American woman in four and claims a life in the United States every six hours?”  A high profile case such as that of Jared Remy who killed his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel in front of their young daughter confirms that at point at which a woman makes an effort to leave a relationship is the point at which she is most likely to be killed.  Kristof himself recounts this story

American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer, and the abuse is particularly shattering because it comes from those we have loved.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever loved,” Ta’Farian, 24, said of her husband, whom she met when she was an 18-year-old college student. He gradually became violent, she says, beating her, locking her up in a closet, and destroying property.

“My family was like, ‘He’s your husband. You can’t leave him. How would you support yourself?’ ”

Still, she says, it became too much, and she called 911. Police arrested him. But she says that the day before the trial, her husband called and threatened to kill her if she testified against him, so she says that out of a mix of fear and love she refused to repeat in court what had happened. Her husband was let off, and she was convicted of false reporting of a crime.

I was still thinking about the Kristof column this morning when I read this front page story in this morning’s Boston Globe on women who buy and hold guns for men.

…As law enforcement agencies and the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh ponder ways to get guns off the street, they are learning that targeting the men who historically have been the primary actors in violent crimes is not enough.

They must also disrupt networks of women who buy and hold weapons for men to use.

“We are seeing women with weapons who do not have a direct role in the city’s gun violence,’’ said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. “But they are turning up with firearms that are used in that violence.”

Debora Seifert, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol,  Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Boston, said that she has worked on cases in which women bought firearms for boyfriends who are drug dealers.

Police confiscated a shotgun and ammunition from Arianna Talbert’s Dorchester apartment last year.

“These women can go into a gun shop and buy these guns for a violent criminal,’’ said Seifert. “They can use these weapons to victimize someone in their communities.”

Jahmeilla Tresvant is facing gun charges in two cases. In one, police believe she was holding a gun for her brother

Jahmeilla Tresvant is facing gun charges in two cases. In one, police believe she was holding a gun for her brother

These guns are often hidden in apartments rented by the women and their discovery can result in eviction.

While research is scant on women’s involvement in the gun problem, studies have been clear about who is leading violence by firearms, said David Hemenway, a professor of public health at Harvard School of Public Health.

Men and teenage boys drive gun crime either as victims or perpetrators. If a woman buys a gun, Hemenway added, she is more likely to be buying it for someone who cannot legally buy a gun.

“These young females find themselves facing jail time for holding that gun,’’ said Evans [Boston Police Commissioner William Evans] in a statement.

The mindset that let Ta’Farian stay with her abusive husband is the same one that causes the young women to buy and hold guns.

In the war on illegal guns, Ruth Rollins has heard it all. She’s an advocate for women whose own son was shot and killed. Women have long been flying under radar in police sweeps for illegal guns, she said. And women have become easy prey for criminally-minded men, who are becoming savvy in avoiding arrest for gun possession by having female relatives, partners, or juveniles hold firearms for them.

Women have said they hold the guns for a variety of reasons: to get a few extra dollars, to get drugs, or simply to feel needed. The firearms are sometimes used as community guns stored in a central location, and anyone, from a wayward juvenile to a terrified young man, can have easy access to them.

“It’s no different from years ago when a woman would hold drugs for their men. They would do it for money. They would do it for love,’’ said Rollins. “Now they are holding these guns and they are doing it in the name of love.”

Kim Odom, who lost her 13-year-old son to violence, said some women feel a deep sense of commitment to their men, even the ones wrapped up in crime.

“They are of the mind-set that they are ‘ride-or-die chicks,’ ” Odom said. “These are young ladies who are willing to go all out for their boyfriends.”

This is just another kind of domestic violence.  Maybe more psychological than physical, but still domestic violence.  And like incidents of domestic violence which end either in death or injury to the woman or in which the woman ends up killing her abuser. [And yes, I do know that women can also be abuser, but men  still make up the vast majority.]

Over past year and a half Rollins and Odom have been training and educating women about the consequences of buying and stashing weapons. They urge women to make pledges to not hold or buy guns and warn them of the penalties if caught. For instance, a person who makes a straw purchase faces up to 10 years in prison under federal law, US authorities said.

Their effort, called Operation LIPSTICK, is run through Citizens for Safety, which has enlisted the help of local law enforcement and the mayor to press the issue. On Feb. 25, the group kicked off an ad campaign on the MBTA,  with placards on subway trains  declaring, “His Crime, Your Time — Holding His Gun Can Land You in Jail.”

Perhaps if we used some of the new technology that would prevent anyone but the gun purchaser from firing it, we would be able to cut down on some of the urban gun violence and some young women would be able to stay out of prison.  Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey has proposed a Smart Gun bill.  We should support it.

Photograph:  Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Globe story:  Meghan E. Irons