Erasure: Conversations with Dr. Anita Hill

“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”

-George Orwell

On October 28, 2018, Vanderbilt University hosted a conference that culminated in a lecture titled, “No Longer Silent: Underrepresented Narratives in Sexual Violence,” presented by Dr. Anita Hill. Her lecture is very appropriately timed, falling just a few weeks after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted (51-49) to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

The confirmation was a culmination of months of inquiry and scrutiny into the lives of Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.   Dr. Ford is a professor and research psychologists at Stanford and Palo Alto University.  In July 2018, upon hearing the nominees for Supreme Court justice Dr. Ford contacted her local congresswoman and the press about her experiences of power-based personal violence inflicted by Kavanaugh decades ago. She intended for her identity to be kept secret and for her story to be protected, however, her name was made public in mid-September.  On September 27, 2019, the world watched Christina Blasey Ford as she declared “I am not here today because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.”

The hearing itself was very disjointed and the intense partisan polarization was palpable. The Republican senators hired Rachel Mitchell to prosecute Dr. Ford. It was alarming for many viewers to see Dr. Ford, a survivor of assault, be prosecuted as she pursued her civic duty during a political proceeding. On the other side of the aisle, each of the Democrat senators on the committee addressed Dr. Ford for her bravery and her catalyzing role in Americana history. The Democrat senators sandwiched their questions in commentary about women’s rights and the failures of the 1991 Senate Judiciary Hearing with Dr. Anita Hill. It was very clear that on one side of the aisle, this moment was about believing women, believing survivors and protecting women’s bodily autonomy.  On the other side, there was a dangerous rhetoric brewing about due process, credibility and presumption of innocence.

For many of my contemporaries, we knew how America felt about women, but it was still shocking to see how much misogyny is socially acceptable in a public space. The  differences between this hearing and Dr. Hill’s hearing were also noteworthy. New commentators felt like Dr. Ford was “more credible” or “more sympathetic” than Dr. Hill yet she was still harangued with questions about how she intended to pay for legal services like a polygraph examination, on her travels after her assault, and on the scientific basis of memory formation.

I naively hoped for progress – that would be a happy ending, one where justice prevailed. I prayed that maybe a white woman would be able to win over the committee and not repeat the 1991 blunders. Instead I finished the hearing reaffirmed in decisions that I made not to report acts of power-based personal violence waged against me. My sentiments were echoed by women all over the world, however, they were not credible enough to protect the highest court in the land.

These thoughts were in the backdrop of my mind as I took my seat and prepared to hear Dr. Hill speak.

Dr. Hill began her speech by addressing the epidemic of sexual violence, I would go even further and suggest it is a pandemic. She glazed over statistics about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 6 men who will be sexually assaulted over the course of their lives and then began unpacking a lot of really important themes including: (1) the misuse of the application of due process, (2) the difference between a political proceeding and a criminal trial, (3) the impact of using statements like “innocent until proven guilty” in public discourse, (4) perceptions of women who report and (5) the impacts of exclusion of marginalized people on policy development.

Dr. Hill spent a lot of time clarifying legal terms that are often misused in the public discourse. First, she began by talking about due process. Due process is a legal term that essentially means that citizens are entitled to fair treatment through the judiciary system. Due Process is guaranteed to us as a protection from the state and federal government by the fourteenth and fifth amendment, respectively. A lot of social and political commentators have suggested that men accused of rape have been denied due process in various spaces like college campuses, most notably and recently, commentators have repeatedly posited that Brett Kavanaugh has been denied due process through his confirmation process. Dr. Hill was quick to strike this down as misinformation. In the cases of Kavanaugh and other men who are being confronted in non-criminal proceedings, due process is not the standard being applied. In the case of Kavanaugh’s public hearings, the goal isn’t to determine innocence or guilt, but rather to judge fit for life long tenure on the highest court.

This clarification was an important segue way into her next point which was to differentiate a criminal proceeding from a political proceeding.  A political trial is a proceeding that addresses political questions, with political actors and usually aims to bolster or inhibit a particular political agenda. These trials often have very little to do with justice but instead have serve a symbolic and ideological purpose. A criminal trial is very different. A criminal trial is a legal proceeding meant to resolve charges or accusations against a defendant. Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury in a criminal case, though, that right can be waived. Dr. Hill made it a point to keep these two proceedings as very disparate pieces of our political system though they are often conflated because both typically take place in court rooms.

The conflation of political and criminal proceedings contributes to the ignorance people are plagued with when trying to engage in dialogue on sexual violence in our culture. The last legal tid-bit Dr. Hill shared with the audience was about use of the “innocent until proven guilty” standard.  Though she addressed a caveat of it when talking about due process, she returned to this axiom to talk about how this rhetoric is damaging to women. Presumption of innocence is a principle that exists in the criminal justice world, not in the lens of political proceedings. Dr. Hill explained that using this standard in a non-criminal proceeding, places the onus on the survivor to prove her credibility. The hearings were a part of Kavanaugh’s job interview, not a criminal proceeding with a prosecuting body, therefore those standards cannot apply. Kavanaugh wasn’t being prosecuted for his crimes, but rather his character was being evaluated for fitness, therefore, it was up to him to defend his qualifications.

In addition to exploring the harmful rhetoric in public discourse that stems from ignorant use of legal terms, Dr. Hill also explored the American oral tradition around demonizing and/or discrediting women who report sexual assaults. She talked about how women who report are seen as one or a combination of four categories. They are: (1) evil or hate men, (2) liars, (3) erotomaniacs or oversexed or (4) confused and mistook the identity of their assailant. Painting women who report assaults as people who hate men or are evil suggests that they are reporting as an act of retribution rather than a protection of bodily autonomy. This view centers the accused’s lives as the focus of sexual assault narratives rather than the survivor’s civil rights protections.  The same goes for narratives that present the accuser as a liar. Narratives like this are common especially when the accused is in a position of power. Dr. Hill commented on her own experience of being questioned about her sexuality at the 1991 Senate Judiciary Hearings even though it she clearly and repeatedly stated that the sexual advances made towards her were unsolicited and unwelcome. Finally, the last trope is that women are confused. This one seems the most innocuous, however, it actually is the most harmful. It suggests that society should not trust the lived and expressed experiences of women because they are inherently and/or easily confused or because the trauma endured has caused them irreparable temporal lobe damage. These narratives may seem like “just words,” however, they pervade the American consciousness and perpetuate misogyny.

Dr. Hill concluded her remarks by highlighting two landmark cases in workplace harassment. She prefaced naming them by saying that although these cases are extremely significant, they are often left out of the canon of literature about sexual assaults. The cases are Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986) and Bundy v. Jackson (1981). Bundy was a D.C. circuit case that set the precedent that workplace sexual harassment claim could constitute discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vinson was a Supreme Court case that ruled 9-0 that sexual harassment is a violation of Title VII.  Dr. Hill posited that this history is largely erased and forgotten because these women were black women. This is the crux of her speech, that black and brown women are largely silenced and erased from conversations about sexual assault.

Not only has the legacy of the black women pioneers been forgotten, if not completely erased, but there are also women who are currently in the United States who are experiencing a similar fate. The last group that Dr. Hill discussed was the migrant farm workers who experience sexual exploitation while picking the fruits and vegetables in our grocery stores and farmers market. This may come as a surprise to people who eat plant-based diets as a way to be cruelty free. The women who harvest your food are frequently robbed of their dignity as they ensure we have fresh food in our pantries.  Many of these workers find themselves at the intersection of race, gender and immigration status, so crimes against them go largely unreported thus unprosecuted.

One of the lessons that we gleam from Dr. Hill is that good policy cannot be written when people are excluded. It’s necessary to add narratives to the canon so they can be added to the public discourse. Ultimately policy might start at the center, but it must eventually work its way to the margins. That can only begin if we, as a community, continue to engage in inclusive public discourse that does not support a narrative that paints women as liars or that conflates the criminal and political. It requires honest and critical inquiry, information dissemination and cross-cultural dialogue. It requires a culture shift.

What will it take to get us there?

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