By DAVE MASON
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Anita Hill noted one of four women and one of six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.
“The figures are even higher for nonbinary people,” Ms. Hill told the News-Press recently by phone from her office at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Ms. Hill testified during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ Senate confirmation hearings in 1991 and accused him of sexual harassment against her. She worked as an attorney-adviser for Mr. Thomas when he was the assistant secretary of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Despite her testimony, the Senate confirmed Mr. Thomas’ appointment by a vote of 52-48.
Since then, Ms. Hill has spoken out against harassment by those who have power over their victims and is today calling for the federal government to take a larger role in addressing gender-based violence.
Ms. Hill will discuss “From Social Movement to Social Impact: Putting an End to Sexual Harassment” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at UCSB Campbell Hall.
Ms. Hill, a Brandeis University professor of social policy, law, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said this will be her first public address in Santa Barbara. But she added she has visited the city for various events.
She went on the national stage during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in 1991. Last year, Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden apologized to Ms. Hill for what she endured during the hearings by the committee, which he chaired at the time.
Ms. Hill noted that the committee failed to call experts who could have helped the public to understand sexual harassment.
“One can say it was because they didn’t take it seriously. I don’t know exactly if that was the reason,” Ms. Hill said. “I do know that not by calling other witnesses, by not calling experts to help explain and to help them craft their questions to get to the truth, I think the entire country was done a disservice and certainly me personally.”
Ms. Hill noted that a series of books has been written about the hearings and her decision to testify.
“I think my purpose in talking to the audience in Santa Barbara is not to revisit the 1991 hearings, but to see them as a point in our history where we were just beginning to understand the problems that really exploded on the public scene in 2017,” she said.
She was referring to the beginning of the #MeToo movement, during which female victims of gender-based violence spoke up on social media. It led to several actresses making allegations of wrongdoing by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is now on trial in New York City on five counts of sexual assault.
“The Me Too movement accomplished one really important thing,” Ms. Hill said. “And that was a really clear awareness of the depth and the severity of gender-based violence of all sorts, including sexual harassment.”
She said the reporting by different women in social media demonstrated that the problems were ongoing and were not being exaggerated.
“I think the Me Too movement had an immediate impact, which was letting people know the truth about women’s experiences as well as the experience of men who had been subject to different kinds of abuses,” Ms. Hill said.
She said the movement has contributed to the discussion of accountability by the criminal justice system and the people governing workplaces and creating the rules against abuse and discrimination.
But she said the Me Too movement is just the beginning of change.
She noted the investigative process hadn’t improved between the Senate Judiciary Committee’s review of her testimony in 1991 and the panel’s 2018 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. During her testimony, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University, made the allegation that Mr. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1972.
The Senate confirmed his appointment by a vote of 50-48.
“You’ll recall the Senate made a decision to move forward with the vote, knowing there had not been a thorough investigation, where the FBI was told, ‘You will talk to the two primary parties’ and not to other parties who could have corroborated either side,” Ms. Hill said.
But she added the committee did make some effort not to ask inflammatory and myth-based questions about motives for bringing charges of sexual misconduct.
“What we are learning more and more every day, every time you read a new book by a reporter or a book done by a survivor, is there are many, many structural impediments to women being able to come forward and being able to tell the truth about the abuse they’ve experienced,” Ms. Hill said.
Ms. Hill said victims have had to sign nondisclosure agreements that protect the powerful people abusing them. She noted they also have feared retaliation or not being believed or taken seriously.
She said today’s questions include how to encourage more victims to report abuse and how to improve the system that addresses their cases.
Ms. Hill said one step is getting rid of nondisclosure agreements, an effort that is raising awareness. “But what we’re learning is that nondisclosure agreements are just one of the structures that keep people from coming forward.
“People don’t come forward because they don’t have the correct information about the system,” she said. “They don’t know what the investigation is going to look like.
“Some people don’t come forward because they know they’re going to be pushed into an arbitration system that favors employers,” Ms. Hill said.
She explained she doesn’t see new laws as necessarily the answer.
“We don’t even know what kind of legislation needs to be passed because we’ve never taken a full look at the system,” she said.
“What we do need, I think, is a much more robust enforcement of the laws that we have about sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual harassment in our schools,” she said. “We need the (federal 1994) Violence Against Women Act to be renewed.”
Ms. Hill said protection is needed for contractors and freelance workers, who technically aren’t employees.
She said passage of the Equal Rights Amendment would be an important statement, but added the problem can’t be addressed with a single solution.
“I think gender-based violence, if we look at it in its entirety, qualifies as one of those issues where we need the government to step back and say, ‘How do we change this trajectory for this issue and how do we keep people safe?’ ”