Anita Hill: Reluctant hero breaks taboo against Black women speaking out
Linda Averill
volume:  
volume 13
issue 2
January 1992
The day Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges went public was the day U.S. working women exploded. The leaked report of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas' abuse ignited a powder keg of female rage aimed at the nation's capital.

Women stormed the Senate steps and jammed the phone lines, demanding an investigation. The Democrats and Republicans made a front-page, primetime spectacle of themselves trying to explain their cover-up.

The pro-forma confirmation process of right-winger Thomas was stopped dead in its tracks in October, forcing a televised hearing on sexual harassment. I t was a clear demonstration of women's new power arising from their enormous numbers in the workplace.

Yet for all the initial muscle-flexing, women emerged from the hearings bruised and punch-drunk. Anita Hill, involuntary champion of every woman who's ever been harassed, was herself put on trial, pilloried by Republicans, and abandoned by Democrats.

How did women lose so much ground so quickly?

Anita Hill's saga is the story of how the fight against sexism goes nowhere when divorced from an understanding of the interrelationship of sex with race and class. Hill couldn't "explain herself" without admitting that racial protocol prohibits Black women from publicly criticizing the Brothers. So she wasn't believed by the WASP-male Senate.

Thomas seizes control of the debate. The hearings began with the entire country tuned in suspensefully. Who would win: the good ole boys or women?

But only minutes after Anita Hill testified, the hearing bogged down.

In interrogating Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee steered clear of the national debate about sexual harassment as a form of discrimination and management power over women. Instead, the committee orchestrated a titillating grade-B sex movie. When Thomas took the stand, he went on a furious offensive, using race as his heavy artillery.

First, the man who ran the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission through the 1980s had declined to listen to Hill's testimony, showing his opinion of sexual harassment charges brought by a Black woman.

Then he charged the committee with conducting a "high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks." Never mind that the hearing was held only because women demanded an end to the Senate cover-up.

Thomas roared and railed and defied and grandstanded and luxuriated in self-pity. He was the outraged party; she was the criminal.

Reams of newsprint have since been devoted to analyzing why the obfuscating, disgusting political morass dubbed "the process" served such a beating to Anita Hill and to women.

Everyone agrees the Democrats ran like rats and proved that they are champions of no one. Republicans proved that they are machine politicians to the core. Thomas proved that he will do anything to advance his career.

But what of Anita Hill? What role did she play? Why did she wait 10 years before going public? Why was she unable to help turn the tide against Thomas and the U.S. Senate?

Anita Hill: reluctant accuser. An articulate law teacher and Yale graduate, Anita Hill worked for the EEOC under Clarence Thomas in the early 1980s.

Hill never delivered the argument she was capable of giving based on her credentials. According to regulations written by Thomas' EEOC in 1988, Hill had a perfect case. Her succinct and dignified testimony was enough to incriminate Thomas, and she had discussed the harassment with colleagues who presented excellent supporting statements in the Senate hearing.

Yet Hill never filed a grievance against Thomas. If her statement had not been leaked, her story never would have been told. Mystifyingly, she showed no familiarity with EEOC laws and procedures during the hearing.

Anita Hill did not want to challenge Thomas.

Her reluctance went beyond that felt by every sexual harassment victim. It can only be understood by taking into account the battle of the sexes that rages in the Black community.

Up against the myth of the Black matriarchy. Doubly oppressed because of color and gender, Black women have consistently provided much of the most militant leadership in the struggles for race and sex liberation.

The civil rights movement is filled with the names of Black women leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks.

And although the history is hidden, Black women and other women of color have been prime movers in achieving uncountable labor and social victories, including abortion rights.

It was therefore inevitable that bourgeois ideologists would create a myth calculated to undermine Black women in order to deprive Blacks of the leaders best placed to unite the struggles for race, class, and gender freedom—a revolutionary position.

The myth of the Black matriarchy, formulated by white liberal sociologist Patrick Moynihan, places the blame for Black men’s problems on Black women instead of on the racism intrinsic to capitalism. According to Moynihan, Black men can’t get jobs or keep families together because they are emasculated by strong Black women.

He took his cue from Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims, who relegated their womenfolk to the balcony, head veils, and a life of subservience (like the Orthodox Jews and Iranians did).

Helping to promote this divisive falsehood are Black cultural nationalists, the wing of the Black movement that looks for solution separate from the struggles of the rest of the working class and short of dismantling the profit system

By perpetuating the myth that the subjugation of women will help bring Black liberation, Black misleaders justify their own sexism. They accuse Black women who criticize Black men of breaking race solidarity. The most titanic storms are unleashed on Black women who take the myth itself, as Michele Wallace found out when she wrote Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman.

Anita Hill, like every Black female, knows the dynamics of this myth. She knew what would happen once she was publicly cast in the role of the castrating, too-independent, unsupportive Black woman.

She was right. Thomas exploited the myth to full advantage. When he accused the Senate of lynching, he was accusing Hill of being the race traitor who supplied the rope.

And in the background was his adoring, voiceless, conservative white wife, Virginia Lamp, a flesh-and-blood rebuke to Black women who "drive Black men away" with their unsubmissiveness.

Sex, race, class: pulling it all together. As the assassination of Hill by the Senate proceeded, the great national investigation into sexual harassment sputtered out.

Some feminists organized rallies in support of Hill's charges, and the subject continued to be addressed in newspaper columns and TV commentaries.

But much of women's initial fury receded in confusion under the anti-Hill barrage. What was left went largely unorganized as the liberal leadership of the feminist movement held back from uncovering and combating the taboo against Black women holding Black men accountable.

These moderate, NOW-led feminists also found themselves handicapped, as always, by their lack of class analysis.

The male-supremacist Senators took refuge in pompously pontificating about sexual harassment as a morality issue. Sexism, they would have us believe, is an accident, a failure of individual righteousness. Mainstream feminists can't fully answer that.

Sexual harassment is just one form, and a minor form, actually, of discrimination against women. It is specially suited for keeping women afraid, confused, disoriented, repressed, isolated, screwed-up, and turned inward. To what purpose? To maintain class relations to keep women on the job in their place and prevented from wielding their power as workers.

Those who engage in or defend this behavior toward women are not simply stinkers: they are reinforcing the status quo and asserting class or caste privilege. They are desperately hanging on to their ancient perquisites in a world that challenges those abominations.

The potential for the confirmation hearing to end in a surge forward for the feminist movement was derailed. But it takes a lot of battles to win a war. The drama of race, class and sex was played out in front of millions, and the lessons of how these bases for oppression interact, benefiting either one class or another, are there to be learned.

Anita Hill is, however unwittingly, a heroine. Clarence Thomas is an obnoxious pawn of the establishment. Male and female feminists need to perpetuate an indignant uproar over the disgusting fact that a blatantly under-qualified opportunist ended up as the supposed representative of U.S. Blacks. This is ridiculous, demeaning to the thousands of Blacks who would make great Supreme Court justices. But it happened because liberal feminists can never stand up for long to their Congressional masters. Their Democrat party politics render them helpless.

What are these sob sisters doing since the Thomas ascension to the Supreme Court to protest this horror? Why do they let the goddam Senate get away with this crap?

They're too weak? They should ask themselves why. If you won't confront the system, you'll never reform its constituent parts. The only defense for Anita Hill is to lash out at Clarence Thomas on the questions of sex, race, and class. Do the lady feminists have any more guts than the Senate to do this?

Radicals do this. Let's do it.