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How Has America Changed Since Anita Hill?

The senate’s treatment of Dr. Blasey Ford would have been very different without her

Michael Greiner
Sep 30, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call/Getty

I remember 1991. Having graduated from college in 1989, and with a passion for politics, I, like many of my ilk, migrated to Capitol Hill to find work I deemed important. Luckily, in the 1990 election, I had worked for a congressional campaign that defied expectations and won in what was then rock-ribbed Republican New Hampshire. As a result, I had a leg up and landed a job as a legislative assistant.

I had visions of changing the world in this position. I thought I had become a big deal. But the mundane nature of the work soon brought me to reality. Answering mail, taking notes at meetings, and taking phone calls the congressman didn’t have the time for became a daily grind. As my mother expressed when I described the work to her, I was a good secretary — and a low-paid one, at that.

Anita Hill’s poise and obvious honesty changed the way people viewed sexual harassment in particular and women in general.

What made up for these frustrations was my pride in walking the halls of Congress. I felt like I was witnessing history up close. My boss’s first big vote was on the resolution to authorize the Gulf War. Our office was flooded with mail we were ill-equipped to handle, as we hadn’t yet connected our phone system and computers. We stored bags of mail in the closet hoping to get to them later.

I remember standing in one of the halls of Congress with a few of my friends when security told us we couldn’t go any further because the president would be walking by. We hastily wrote a sign saying “no more vetoes” in protest of George H. W. Bush’s legislative strategy. It was thrilling.

In this way, I was there for the Anita Hill hearings. Granted, all the action was taking place on the Senate side of the Hill, but we reveled in the sense of being close to history.

And history it was. Anita Hill changed everything.

Remember, 1991 was a different era. Certainly, technology was different. Nobody had cell phones. Personal computers were rare. The internet was a secret government program. The fax machine was the height of connectivity. We printed our political fliers using a Gestetner machine.

Things were even more different in society. Two years before, in college, I was deemed a radical due to the fact that I had friends who were gay. The idea of gay marriage was absurd, and it was still socially acceptable to make fun of people for their sexual orientation. Freddie Mercury died of AIDS that year. I remember telling someone I worked with that I was a Queen fan, and he replied that he didn’t like Queen because he didn’t like “fags.”

Apartheid was still law in South Africa. The film Pretty Woman — a film that celebrated prostitution — was a hit.

But there were signs of change. After the fall of communism, Eastern Europe was taking its first steps toward democracy. The U.S. and Canada signed a treaty to reduce acid rain. Former Senator John Tower was rejected in his bid to become Secretary of Defense after it was revealed that he would chase secretaries around his desk.

But Anita Hill was a landmark. Her testimony was one of those turning points in history — a moment when the right person was at the right place at the right time. Some may say she failed to prevent Clarence Thomas from ascending to the Supreme Court. But her poise and obvious honesty changed the way people viewed sexual harassment in particular and women in general.

Today, it’s shocking to look back on how Biden handled the hearings.

At the time, though Democrats controlled the Senate, there was only one Democratic female senator. Supposed feminist Joe Biden was Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Today, it’s shocking to look back on how Biden handled the hearings. He should have been supporting Anita Hill. Instead, he did everything to hamper her. He refused to call witnesses that supported her story. As Annys Shin and Libby Casey reported in The Lily News, he was actually part of the problem. He called it a “he said, she said” situation and allowed the Republican men on the committee to, essentially, put Anita Hill on trial.

Nobody stood up for Anita Hill. She sat there and testified with honor by herself.

It was perhaps one of the most impressive pieces of testimony I have ever seen. She was cool and collected. She never let the Senators get the better of her. She refused to become a caricature of women. She was a real person who real people could relate to.

In the wake of Professor Hill’s testimony, 1992 became the “year of the woman.” America elected six Democratic women to the U.S. Senate. After the events of last week, a similar reaction may be in the cards this year

The Senate treated Dr. Blasey Ford so much differently than they treated Anita Hill just 27 years ago. I remember the hostility they aimed at Professor Hill. I remember how well she handled it, steadfast in the truth of her testimony. It’s hard to imagine how Dr. Blasey Ford might have reacted had she faced the same pushback.

Professor Hill changed our entire national dialogue about gender and sexual harassment.

Dr. Blasey Ford didn’t have to face that kind of reaction because of Anita Hill. Professor Hill changed our entire national dialogue about gender and sexual harassment. Finally, we wondered if it was okay to verbally attack a rape victim or ask what she may have done to cause the assault. We must remember that Dr. Blasey Ford’s assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh occurred prior to Anita Hill. That may be part of why she was originally afraid to report the crime.

Certainly, as last week demonstrated, we have a long way to go. But last week also showed us how far we’ve come. We need only compare last week’s hearing to Anita Hill’s a generation before. Whatever changes we see — in senators’ treatment of the victim and the national reaction to her testimony — are the result of one person: a relatively young woman willing to stand up to the most powerful men in the country and the country as a whole.

Written by

Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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