Comment: What two women — with right hand raised — can tell us

Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, in a new podcast, tell why they testified about court nominees.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

Theirs is a club of two. A club that neither of them ever would have asked to join.

Thirty years ago next month, Anita Hill testified before the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when he was her boss in two federal workplaces.

Twenty-seven years later, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the committee that another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers.

In both cases, the testimony riveted the nation. Hill’s was televised and seen by a huge audience. Ford’s, taking place in a thoroughly transformed media environment, was the focus of nonstop cable TV and social media coverage and partisan commentary that was as immediate as it was intense. Both Thomas and Kavanaugh denied the women’s statements, and Thomas called the committee proceedings “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks.”

During a recent conversation recorded for a new podcast, Hill, now 65 and a Brandeis law professor, told Ford, 54 and a psychology scholar at Stanford and Palo Alto University, that she felt a sense of overwhelming kinship as she watched the 2018 testimony; a feeling that she knew was shared by a large community of like-minded women.

“A spiritual solidarity,” Hill called it.

Their conversation is a high point in “Because of Anita,” a new four-part podcast series that debuts in October. I listened to a segment of it Thursday and found it moving, instructive and — as podcasts sometimes can be — surprisingly intimate. The two had met and spoken before but not, until now, for the public to hear.

The conversation took place on Zoom in late August with Hill and Ford in their home offices in Massachusetts and California. The podcast hosts — activist and scholar Salamishah Tillet and journalist Cindi Leive, longtime editor of Glamour magazine — were in San Diego and Brooklyn.

Hill and Ford discussed the intensity of their experiences, and how it lingered far beyond their moments in the harsh spotlight; moments remembered by many Americans as a still image of each woman with her right hand raised.

They also agreed on their motivation: that it was not, at heart, to persuade those who would vote for or against the nominees but rather, a desire to be clear and honest about their experiences; to simply say what they knew and not to be attached to the outcome.

The most obvious outcomes, of course, were similar. Thomas and Kavanaugh both were confirmed by narrowly divided Senate votes: 52 to 48, and 50 to 48, respectively.

But both Hill and Ford sound as if they have made their peace with that; and say they would do it again, though they acknowledge how much the searing experiences have changed their lives.

“When there is someone else in this position, and there will be, maybe they will see that it is their civic duty to speak up,” Ford says on the podcast.

It’s that sentiment that caused Tillet to tell me this week that she sees what each of them did as “a radical act of American patriotism.”

“They wouldn’t say that about themselves, but as time passes, their acts seem braver and bolder and bigger,” Tillet said. Describing herself as a Black feminist and a sexual assault survivor, Tillet told me that she was deeply affected as a high school student by Hill’s testimony.

“It was a primer in real time,” she said, about the linked relationship between racism and sexism and about the high stakes for Hill, for women, and for the nation; a nation that continues to realize the profound consequences of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.

Tillet described making the podcast as “a beautiful, interracial, feminist project.” Produced by Brooklyn’s Pineapple Street Studios and the Meteor, a media company co-founded by Leive that focuses on gender equity, it features not only the hour-long conversation between Hill and Ford but interviews with others who play a role in what happened 30 years ago and its aftermath.

The first episode posts on Oct. 4, and the others follow over a 10-day period, with the third — the conversation between Hill and Ford — dropping on Oct. 11, the 30th anniversary of the contentious hearing.

Among those interviewed: investigative journalist Jane Mayer, who covered the hearings and co-wrote, with Jill Abramson, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas”; civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who was a member of Hill’s legal team; Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected to the Senate, one of a flood of women inspired to run for Congress the year after the 1991 hearings; and Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement.

“It’s about everything that’s changed, and everything that hasn’t,” Leive told me.

That means that it’s a story that contains big helpings of both optimism and pain. There are the gains that have been made in recognizing widespread sexual misconduct, especially in the workplace, and having the vocabulary to talk about it. There is the knowledge that such offenses are still rampant and that legislation to prevent or punish them has been far less than revolutionary.

Thirty years later, it turns out, there’s still plenty to learn from Anita Hill’s decision to speak her truth. And from all that followed.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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