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Opening Remarks | Anita Hill 20 Years Later

Opening Remarks

  • Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon

    October 15, 2011


    Good morning everyone.

    Word first reached me of what became the “big story” of the confrontation between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas — big because the media decided to make it big, not because the facts of the harassment were so unusual, in part, because of the prominence of the man involved, no doubt, and in part, I think, also because of their feel for the white supremacist voyeurism around black sexuality. Anyway, there I was sitting in a public hot tub over-looking the Pacific. It was my birthday. And all around me suddenly everyone was talking about sexual harassment – a great present for someone who had pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment as sex discrimination as a law student 20 years before, back when, as Gloria Steinem once put it, sexual harassment was “just life.”

    I spent the hearings inside NBC watching them virtually in their entirety on live feed, talking with Tom Brokaw on and off the air, doing commentary. It felt like being in touch with the entire country in a massive consciousness changing session on a subject that I had been trying to make real to people, other than those who did it or those who had it done to them, for almost two decades.

    This, by the way, was back before the ideological maneuver had been completed making the term victim into a dirty word — a victim blaming move casting it into a false mold so passive that no victimized person would ever want to recognize themselves in it. All that came a bit later in the fight against pornography, of which these hearings were also a part.

    What happened in these hearings, among other things, was that sexual harassment became real to the world at large for the first time. My book of 1979 framing the legal claim in the way that it became legally accepted did not do this. The EEOC guidelines of 1980 did not do this. Winning Michelle Vincent’s case in the Supreme Court in 1986 did not do this, although all these helped prepare the way. Anita Hill did this through her still, fully present, utterly lucid testimony, that ugly microphone stuck in her beautiful face. the unblinking camera gawking at her from point blank range.

    After she spoke, complaints of sexual harassment across the nation tripled and quadrupled and more, in numbers where they have roughly stabilized. Outrage with how she was treated by the Senate, political scientists documented, elected Bill Clinton. Hm. Women everywhere realized that this isn’t “just life”. — actually, it violates their civil and human rights — and mobilized, so now there are laws against it all over the world.

    All this happened because women identified with Professor Hill – with her dignity and her quality of presence. They believed her with ferocity, and more said so as time and heat passed. With pride, they saw her stand in the fire and come through it. They realized that what had been done to them was at least as unequal and violative as what had been done to her. And when asked to, she had stood up to it. They wanted to be with her, came to feel that if she did this, they could do this. What happened was almost a spiritual transference of finding voice, gaining heart, and standing ground.

    This was especially remarkable because the hearings were not in court and Justice Thomas was put on the Supreme Court anyway. What women saw was not that she won, but that she counted. She was taken seriously, and that seriousness has had her face ever since: an African-American woman’s face. These are women who have long known that they had rights, before any lawyer or any court knew it.

    So sexual harassment became both an outrage that mattered and a part of politics as usual for the first time, a real if complicated step up for women. No longer can powerful men — and men are socially powerful — be sure that the sexual abuse they inflict will be covered up. And few things have been the same since.


    Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon

    University of Michigan Law School, Harvard Law School (long-term visitor), Special Gender Adviser to the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court (the Hague)

    © Catharine A. MacKinnon, 2011