I was five years old when the Anita Hill took the stand in the 1991 Congressional hearings to describe facing sexual harassment in the office of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Thanks in part to Anita Hill having the courage to bring up words like "pubic hair" in front of Congress, I grew up in a country where it feels like we talk about sexual harassment all the time. Sexual harassment is now the stuff of movie heroines, political scandals, and salacious headlines, as well as mundane, mandatory work training and many, many lawsuits.
Today, sexual harassment is back to front page headlines: Representative Anthony Weiner just announced he'll be resigning from office over the Twitter-sexting scandal.
If there's anyone who can add some intelligent insight to Weiner's confusing sex-media-politics storm, it's Anita Hill, who's been through it all in the past twenty years and somehow kept a level head. I got the chance to talk about Rep. Weiner and other hot political issues with Professor Anita Hill last Tuesday, June 7th, when she came through town to speak at a fancy fundraising breakfast for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon. It's hard to have a quick, informal conversation with Hill, a polished speaker who has her points down pat, but I was surprised to find her much funnier than I expected. As a lawyer who has spent her career crusading against sexual harassment, I thought she'd be, you know, uptight.
SARAH MIRK: Of course, the big news this week is Anthony Weiner. How do you feel about the coverage of his case, compared to how it would have been reported on 20 years ago?
ANITA HILL: I'm not sure that we would have had any coverage. The amazing thing is that now there are new ways to harass. The behavior, though, is the same. Just because it happens on Facebook or social media doesn't mean it's not sexual harassment.
Do you think having so much media coverage of Weiner is good? Or does it become just a juicy story that misses the bigger issue?
I think, you're right, there is a real danger of that. What we look at is the behavior, we don't look at what's behind it. Is it just boys being boys? Or is it, as I think it is, abuse of power? Abuse of a position of authority almost gets glorified by culture, becomes valuable. The question is: How do we see all of this as contributing to gender inequality? Every situation, I hope, brings us closer to doing that. But just being able to talk about it and get to a point where we don't just dismiss these complaints is progress. It doesn't get to the root problem, it doesn't get to the institutional problem, but just calling out the behavior is a start.
In your talk at the Planned Parenthood breakfast, you said Republican austerity measures are actually being used to roll back progress women have made in the past decades. What do you see as political cuts that hurt women, other than the Planned Parenthood-abortion issues?
Look at the movement to change to the way social security is structured. Because women live longer than men, they're more reliant on social security. To put that into place a system that relies on private investment is really dangerous. Remember what happened to the private investment market just two or three years ago, Imagine if our social security had been in the private market. What would have happened to those women who were on the cusp of retirement? ... If you look at a situation like Wisconsin where collective bargaining rights of state workers were eliminated, that was true for teachers and state employees, who are disproportionately women, it was not true for firefighters, policemen, and state troopers. I think we have to look behind the neutral agenda and see who is being disproportionately impacted by these politics?
So how do you feel about the brand of feminism that Republican women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are pushing?
I don't think you don't have to look at it as a "brand of feminism" or not a "brand of feminism." You have to look at the impact. I'm looking at is the bottom line: Are women going to be hurt? If you look at the impact, it doesn't matter what you call it, it's going to be bad for women.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!