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Anita Hill confronts past and future in documentary

Published: April 4, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories

In 1991, Anita Hill stood alone in front of a panel during the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas. Today, 22 years later, she revisits the trauma of the hearings while also offering hope for equality in her documentary, “Anita.” The documentary premiered in Waltham Thursday night, April 3. This week, Hill spoke with The Hoot to discuss her experiences during the hearings, what students can learn and how students can engage in a conversation both at Brandeis and in larger situations. And this is only the beginning.

“The important thing is really to learn about the proceedings of 1991, the importance of a fair hearing and process in discovering the truth … I want everyone to know that the process does matter,” Hill said in an interview. She hopes the new generation of people who have been born since the hearings can learn from her experiences and see why the process is vital to securing equality.

“The hearings themselves were really traumatic, and I don’t think that is an exaggeration in any sense … it was a deeply hurtful experience, especially the tone that some of the questions took and some of the behavior some of the senators engaged outside of the hearing room,” Hill said. Some senators made claims outside of the hearings that were not based on any facts.

She felt that “the government was failing you, not just a failure to believe what I was saying but to really understand who I was.” People began to deny her statements exaggeratedly, and this followed her even after the hearings ended. Alan Simpson said that a claim of sexual harassment was “crap,” and even after Hill moved back to Oklahoma, lawmakers there followed the senator’s behavior and continued to cause her additional pain.

When she looks back at the photos taken during the hearings, she still feels that the photos represent her. At the time, the experience felt surreal. To her, one of the most striking photos is that of “that bank of white, male, middle-aged senators, all of whom were older than I was, questioning me, an African-American female, about behavior that so many women had experienced but which they seemed to know nothing about.” There was a stark contrast between what the senators felt was their world and the people whose lives they could not understand or relate to.

Even in the midst of a traumatic experience, Hill never thought she would give up. She had many supporters, including her mother, seven brothers who all supported her and her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma. “I had so much going for me that a lot of people don’t have … sometimes people don’t have their colleagues.” A person’s colleagues might think it will reflect poorly on them if someone makes a claim of sexual harassment.

“You really have to know that you’re being truthful, and you really have to know in your heart, and the right to speak out, and the importance of what you’re saying.” She said that it could be more impactful by bringing others to come support you. Hill initially came forward because she wanted to uphold the integrity of the court, but later realized from other people who spoke up that it resonated with women across the country. “Get the perspective of other people who believe in the same thing … We are strengthened when we can engage with others,” she added.

Certainly much has changed in the past two decades. More women come forward in sexual harassment claims, more women are represented in politics, and there is greater understanding of problems of gender inequality. But there is still a long way to go. Recently in the case against General Jeffrey A. Sinclair, he admitted that he has mistreated a subordinate, with whom he had an adulterous affair for three years. Yet he was hardly held accountable, given only a fine and reprimand, but no jail time.

Hill thinks it is unlikely that her experiences will be repeated exactly by another woman, primarily because it’s likely that a committee would conduct a more robust vetting of the candidate up front, uncovering any such claims before the confirmation went near a hearing.

Students should understand the importance of a fair process to grant people the ability to safely come forward, Hill says. “If there are people who retaliate against them, that they can be brought to account for their behavior as well,” she said.

She believes it is important for students to recognize just how much the culture supports the discrimination and erasure of women who have been harmed. Recently at a college, students marched in Take Back the Night, taking a stand against sexual violence against women, but were met with taunts, primarily from men. The public seems to feel it is acceptable to ridicule an important issue. At Brandeis, Sheila McMahon, sexual assault services and prevention specialist, is working to combat the culture by promoting bystander prevention. “We all need to take responsibility for changing the environment … We can participate in ways that are positive to bring effective change,” Hill said.

Although most news tend to show Brandeis as dealing with sexual assault poorly, Hill discussed how there are many qualified people working to make the university a safe environment. Particularly in the last few years, committed staff try to change the environment. “Some very committed people are trying to make Brandeis the kind of environment where sexual assault is not considered to be the norm, and sexual harassment is not just something that is accepted,” Hill said.

There is an increased effort currently being made to make Brandeis a safe space for all people to feel respected and able to come forward if they are harassed, discriminated against or assaulted. Professor Bernadette Brooten (CLAS, NEJS, WMGS) speaks on campus and others across Massachusetts. Brandeis hosted a sexual assault training program that brings together schools from around the area. The president and provost of Brandeis have made clear statements indicating their support for students. Director of Employee Relations Linda Shinomoto is responsible for harassment and discrimination claims and is the Title IX coordinator. She was unavailable for comment this week, but Hill indicated that she has developed sexual harassment training available to personnel and is an important resource on campus. And in the next few weeks, President Obama will be releasing a report from a committee about the best practices to combat sexual harassment and assault.

As The Hoot recently reported, the Women and Gender Studies program released its report on gender equality. “We have to ask ourselves, Is this the best Brandeis can be?” Hill asked. She believes there is much room for improvement. More women with degrees are coming of age, and now is the time for them to take on leadership positions. “They’re in a position to take on the challenges, and to lead in taking on the challenges,” Hill said.

As a female professor at Brandeis, Hill has not experienced nearly the same overt bias as she did when she was sexually harassed. Sometimes, however, men are given benefits over women due to the system. “Are we valued as much … are our contributions valued as much?” she questioned. “Equality is a work in progress … Sometimes you even feel that you’re moving backwards, but it doesn’t mean that you stop.”

Anita Hill will not be teaching any courses next year, as she was granted her first sabbatical at Brandeis. She will use the time to read through the thousands of letters she has received over the past two decades, and plans to possibly create courses that come from the material. “It’s not over!” she said. “This is just the beginning.”

“The conversation is just restarted after 22 years, and we’ll see where it takes us,” Hill said.

“Anita” will continue playing at the Waltham Embassy Cinema and the Cambridge Kendall Square Cinema.