By Jessa Lingel
When they first hatched the idea for the event, the organizers of last night’s Conversation between Kimberlé Crenshaw and Anita Hill didn’t know how timely it would be, coming on the heels of eerily familiar testimony from a woman about a sexual predator nominated – and eventually confirmed – to the Supreme Court. Getting to hear the incredibly insightful and sharp commentary from Crenshaw, Hill and moderator Dorothy Roberts was a privilege, a source of encouragement and also a challenge – to ask more of ourselves, our institutions and each other. As a way of sharing their insights with a broader audience, here are some of the highlights of the conversation.
Dr. Roberts opened the conversation by noting the “Irony, paradox, and tragedy” of the similarities between the confirmation hearings of Kavanaugh and Thomas.
Dr. Hill noted that Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony should have represented an opportunity to reflect on years earlier and to expect a fair process. Yet looking specifically at the process of the hearing, depressingly little has changed. Like Dr. Blasey Ford, Dr. Hill was given a week to prepare for her testimony, which included travel time; in 1991, the Senate didn’t want a full investigation, with restrictions on witnesses, just as in 2018; in 1991, experts in sexual harassment were ready to testify, but were excluded then, just as now. Hill went n to note that in both instances, the Senate was “more concerned about their schedule than the truth,” where the “framing of the process, and the framing of their questions were not informed by facts and knowledge, and therefore really excluded, especially in 2018, a whole body of information that has been developed.”
For Dr. Crenshaw, “the most compelling thing I noted was how much they seemed to get the memo about how the photo op needed to look.” Although the optics had shifted from the “tribunal” format deployed against Anita Hill, where Republicans were aggressive and disbelieving, while Democrats were standoffish and impartial (at best), and failed to affirm Hill or seriously critique Thomas. But although Republicans understood the need to shift the appearance of the testimony, the process itself staid the same.
The commitment to refusing to affirm women’s testimony is fierce. Dr. Hill reminded us that during the 1991 hearing, Orrin Hatch accused her of plagiarizing her accusations based on The Exorcist, going so far as to bring a photocopied version of the text to the Senate floor. Hill’s damning point is that men view women who make accusations against powerful men are possessed, evil. Yet Hill noted that the lack of such outlandish claims shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as an indicator of success in that the more subtle “deception of the pretext of fairness is almost as damning.”
Both Hill and Crenshaw issued difficult challenges. In terms of whether or not the Senate was or wasn’t concerned with the truth of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony, Dr. Hill noted that “it’s not so much that the senate doesn’t want to know the truth, it’s that they don’t want the public to know the truth.” Meanwhile, Dr. Crenshaw argued, “we have to confront the fact that patriarchy doesn’t change because we have some rights, racism doesn’t change because we have some rights.” Looking back from 1991 to 2018, Crenshaw insisted on the need to move beyond identifying teaching moments to a process for meaningful conversation, asking “what is the lesson plan that comes out of these moments?” More specifically, Crenshaw made two points about the trials as “teaching moments”: First, that “we have to think critically about the confirmation process, this is the culmination of a longer than 30 year campaignto install a particular profile in the judiciary.”
Second, Crenshaw noted the need to “draw out new understandings of credibility.” Movingly, Crenshaw noted that while Blasey Ford was calm, collected and believable, Kavanaugh was emotional and cagey. For Crenshaw, this gap pointed to “the discursive capital that men have over women,” and the need for a vocabulary that names this gap because “You can’t solve a problem that you can’t name.”
Expanding on Crenshaw’s point that organizations like the Federalist Society have have powerful effects on shaping the Judiciary, Dr. Hill pointed out that while Kavanaugh had a range of institutions backing him (including incredibly powerful institutions like the White House and the Republican Party), structurally, Blasey Ford had no institutional support. In other words, “It’s not just the behavior that we have to deal with, it’s the structures of support” that challenge accusers. With additional examples like forced arbitration and NDAs, Hill argued that these structures become part of a system that threatens civil rights collectively.
Crenshaw also issued a powerful critique of the narrative that sexual harassment is the purview of upper and middle class white women: “sexual harassment at work has been a black women’s issue since the moment we arrived on these shores.” Thinking back on Thomas’ claim that the hearing was a “high tech lynching,” Crenshaw argued, “what black man has ever been lynched for anything a black women has ever said?” When thinkers like Orlando Patterson suggest that sexual harassment is something black women should simply know how to handle, it demonstrates “a profound ignorance” and “a refusal to recognize that anti-racist efforts and feminist efforts were part of the same narrative of sexual harassment.”
Although Hill and Crenshaw traced the disheartening parallels between trials separated by 30 years, both thought it was important to note that there have also been important changes. Currently, 90% of companies have policies about sexual harassment, and while a substantial majority of the US public thought that Thomas should be confirmed, Kavanaugh enjoys no such support.
As Provost Anita Allen noted in her introduction, “The impact of these women on how we think about justice has been nothing short of profound.” At a time when many of us feel very much in need of provocative thinking about justice, race and gender, the exchange between Crenshaw, Hill and Roberts was needed, meaningful and generative.