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

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