When I was young, there was a commercial on TV in which a woman is sexually harassed by her boss. As she is harassed, she visibly, literally shrinks. At the end of the commercial, she is full size again, and when her boss tells her, “We’re talking about your job,” she snaps back, “No. We’re talking about sexual harassment, and I DON’T have to put up with it.”
As a child, I loved that commercial. The woman in the commercial was so powerful. I used to run around my house shouting “We’re talking about sexual harassment, and I don’t have to put up with it!” I had no idea what sexual harassment was, so I have no doubt that my parents found this hilarious.
Little did I know that the time in which I was growing up, the early 90’s, was a time when sexual harassment was finally emerging in the national conscience. The world in which my mother grew up, where she was asked by employers if she planned on getting married, was vanishing. Perhaps as a symptom of this, sexual harassment burst onto the national stage in bold fashion in the Anita Hill hearings. Anita Hill, a law professor who worked under Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, accused him of sexual harassment, and was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify.
Needless to say, I have no memory of those hearings because I was only 6 or 7 at the time. I didn’t even hear about them until a few years ago. I went into the movie Anita as almost a complete tabula rasa.
The most striking part of the documentary were the actual hearings themselves. The image of the hearings was striking, a lone black woman sitting at a table, facing a panel of elderly white men, elevated above the floor. It was an image of power against the powerlessness, and a perfect visual representation of the plight of women minorities in America. (Point of information, I am a woman, but not a minority.)
By far the most compelling and riveting part of the movie was the part detailing the hearings before the Senate. As I watched the scenes, I felt as though Anita Hill was being sexually harassed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, asking her again and again, “Tell me what Clarence Thomas said about the large breasts.” “Tell me again what he said about the size of his penis.” The several days of testimony, which lasted nine hours, seemed designed to further humiliate her. They even asked her what was the most humiliating part of her experience.
The Senators also seemed to be in a competition as to who could come across as the most ignorant. My money goes to the Senator who said, in essence, “All this talk about sexual harassment, I don’t even know what sexual harassment is.” Genius. Pure genius.
The other fascinating part of the experience was hearing my mother’s reaction to the movie. My mom works in human resources at a large company, and she has handled many sexual harassment complaints. She said that Congress performed the most ineffective, backwards sexual harassment investigation she has ever seen. A proper investigation does not involve question the alleged victim for nine hours, and it certainly does not involve dismissing key witnesses without hearing their testimony. She also said that Clarence Thomas reacted the way every alleged perpetrator does when they first hear about the allegations, categorically denying everything, only to later admit to what they had done. She also said that Anita Hill acted the way every alleged victim she has ever seen, saying, “I just wanted it to stop.”
At times hilarious, at other times horrifying, and at some moments horrifyingly hilarious (or hilariously horrifying) Anita was a wonderful window into a moment of US history, and the movement to end workplace sexual harassment in the United States.