This month marks 25 years since Anita F. Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and testified about sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court hopeful Clarence Thomas. She testified about his commentary regarding her physical appearance and someone leaving a pubic hair on his soda can. It was shocking. Fast-forward to 2016, and here we are again: Donald Trump is a presidential candidate, and several women have come forward to say that they were harassed.
Unlike Thomas, who denied the allegations and went so far as to invoke America’s racist history to invalidate the claims (and prevailed), Trump not only has been accused but has admitted to sexual assault. We’ve watched him use a woman’s appearance as justification for why he couldn’t have sexually assaulted them. In the same span of time, he’s dismissed vulgar comments outlining how he’s actually sexually assaulted women as “just locker-room talk.” Many women and elected officials alike have indicated that they’ll still vote for him even if “solid” evidence surfaces. Never mind the fact that he bantered about those behaviors.
Many pundits and think pieces hailed Hill for paving the way for the female victims of sexual assault to come forward and have their stories be heard. However, I believe it did more than just that. Hill was indeed a pillar of strength and hope for victims of sexual assault who felt voiceless, but her story highlighted how easily people in power can use sexual abuse for political gain and fodder. There’s no denying that Trump has used his power and influence to perpetuate sexual harm on women, and he’s escaping relatively unscathed (minus a slight decrease in polls).
I was 10 years old when Hill went through that hearing. I was in awe that a black woman had the audacity to actually say something against a man like Thomas, whom many respected. But the sad truth is that even as a young child, I could see and feel the unspoken belief that a woman’s body wasn’t her own. I have an amazing mother who taught me about body ownership, while society told me that things like what happened to Hill “happen sometimes.”
I would listen in on the conversations that my mother and her sorority sisters would have about ascending the ranks in the workplace, and their stories contradicted the very premise of body ownership my mom was trying so hard to ingrain in me. She knew that she was raising a young woman in a society that wouldn’t value my body or well-being, so she did what she could to prepare me. I’m sure Hill’s mother and the mothers of Trump’s victims can relate.
To me, what was more audacious about Hill was that the she was a black woman who spoke out knowing the consequences; she knew early on that her life would be mercilessly scrutinized. Sexual partners, preferences and the like would be discussed and used as means of justifying Thomas’ behavior. This is how we discussed and dealt with sexual assault and harassment on a national platform then, and it still rings true today.
Hillary Clinton recently tweeted, “Every sexual assault victim should be heard and believed.” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway retweeted it. She used it as a basis to help her candidate introduce the “Clinton accusers” into the political conversation. When Trump began facing his allegations, she waffled. Likewise, Clinton supporters were ready to pounce on the other candidate and wholeheartedly believed his accusers. However, when it comes to Bill Clinton, some of his supporters believe that “ it doesn’t matter because he is not running for office.” Actually, it does matter. It all matters.
Every victim of sexual assault should be heard and believed. It shouldn’t take something like an act of Congress before women are heard and believed. Hill sat in front of Congress and was told, by a confirmation vote, that political power was more important than her dignity. As with President Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby and now Trump, when women come forward, very rarely are they initially believed, if at all.
What does this say about us, about our culture as a nation? It says that we in some way support, are purveyors of or are blissfully ignorant of rape culture. If we do not believe sexual assault victims, then we are the problem. Picking and choosing whom to believe, and politicizing rape and sexual violence, are the problems. We are the problem—and therefore the same culture we decry is the same culture we are promoting.
So, Anita F. Hill, thank you for being brave and speaking your truth in the face of great opposition. Thank you for paving the way for us to discuss sexual harassment and assault in an open forum. And thank you for showing women of all races that it is possible to call out people in power for the violence and harm they cause. Sadly, we still have a long way to go.
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Michele Whitfield is a criminal-defense and civil rights attorney practicing in the Tampa Bay area. She writes about race, politics and Beyoncé.