Opinion: We believe Dr. Ford and Anita Hill, but they are not the same
Untangling the compelling and incomplete comparison between Dr. Ford and Anita Hill
I came to American University because it houses the most politically active students in the nation, but it was not until the Kavanaugh hearings that this title upgraded from a mere rumor, spread by campus-tour guides and proud convocation speeches, to a personal reality felt in my first-year orbit.
The Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford hearings properly expunged any distrust in my new community’s capacity for political awareness, activism and attention. Fellow members of University College left campus at six o’clock in the morning in the hopes of securing a spot in the hearing room, sizeable groups of students were absent from each of my classes to protest downtown, and my friends and I took shifts watching and reporting on the livestream in between classes. This impassioned, student-driven network extended to social media, where I was first confronted by an image of Anita Hill and Dr. Ford, set side by side.
— ELLE Magazine (US) (@ELLEmagazine) September 27, 2018
In 1991, Hill came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, resulting in a three day hearing conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thomas was eventually confirmed—he still serves as a justice on the Supreme Court today—and while Hill was dismissed due to much of the same sexist, trauma-uninformed lines of questioning employed by the committee during the Kavanaugh hearings, Hill’s ultimate condemnation was on the basis of gender and race.
Threatened as a man, Thomas turned to race, contesting that his hearing was a “high tech lynching.” This subsequently drew sympathy from the committee, affirming that the issue of race in the post-civil rights era had yet to be “dealt with.” Why would an all-white, disproportionately conservative committee entertain such accusations of racism?
Clarence Thomas is the second African-American justice in history and is predominantly conservative, making his politics akin to that of other white justices despite his race. Thomas’ nomination promised a conservative majority under the guise of racial “progress.” The committee needed Thomas’ blackness to advance their conservative agenda. His claim of racial slander aligned with the identity by which the court had already identified him.
This racial strategy properly exonerated Thomas’ guilt and drowned Hill’s claims of such transgressions. Hill both revealed and reified the plight felt at the intersection of race and gender based oppression. “Progressive” African-American men accused Hill of betraying her “roots,” while white women doubted the credibility of an African-American woman. This institutional degradation of a Black woman effectively cautioned other Black women against standing publicly with Anita, and surely warned them not to report their own experiences of harassment and violence.
However, for many women, namely women of color, the Anita Hill case was a catalyst for political action. Enraged by the harassment and belittlement facilitated by white people, the law and the patriarchy, thousands of women came forward in the streets and on paper in support of Hill. Hill awakened young women, expressly Third-Wave Feminists, reminding them that women’s liberation had not yet been won, and that such a liberation must include women of color.
The comparison between Anita Hill and Dr. Ford is compelling. For one thing, it demonstrates just how uninformed and incompetent some senators still are when considering issues of sexual misconduct and assault even 27 years after the same committee held the Thomas hearings. This begs of us to consider why and how our system continues to allow these senators to sit on such a committee. In essence, this comparison articulates two harrowing truths: sexual assault and misconduct is (still) an epidemic, and even on the rare occasion that survivors are believed, the crimes from which they suffered are excused by the establishment.
In 1991, women rallied around Anita Hill, promising to vindicate her by championing the rights of all survivors. It is befitting—indeed necessary—that this allyship be adopted in the wake of the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings.
However, Brett Kavanaugh’s deck is void of the race card, forcing a hand wrought with white privilege, desperate entitlement and Republican cat-calls. Neither Anita Hill nor her hearings mirror that of Dr. Ford’s. Hill faced prejudice on account of her womanhood and her blackness, inspiring many women who were then determined to make feminism a space for women of color. It is no coincidence that a member of Hill’s support team, Kimberle Crenshaw, was the first to coin the term “intersectionality.”
Perhaps the image of Ford and Hill side-by-side is a call to action, an illustration of the ways in which sexual assault and harassment—and the complimentary absolution of such injustices—is both a systemic and historic issue. In our attempts to combat such long-held, seemingly unmovable iniquity, we must not conflate nor simplify stories of injustice against women. We ought to compose them replete with autonomy, diversity and integrity.
I implore you to make sure that the photos on your Instagram feed reflect these same ideals, unlike the incomplete image of these two courageous women.
Sophia Brill is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. They are an outside contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.