During the past week I attended a Los Angeles premiere of a new documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (Dir: Freida Lee Mock USA, 2013). The screening was sold out and I had great seats saved for me– sitting with a friend who works at Samuel Goldwyn, the distributor of this fine film.
In 1991, Anita Hill provided testimony she hoped would serve to dissemble the nomination of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice. Although the vote would end up being close (52-48) Hill’s testimony did not serve to dissuade the decision — Clarence Thomas’ nomination was confirmed and he was appointed to a life term on the Supreme Court four days after Hill’s testimony concluded. Here is an outline of the debate.
I remember watching the hearings in 1991 at a friend’s house in Sacramento, CA where I was couch-surfing with another friend while we were in Sacramento from Los Angeles to protest for gay rights—to speak our truth to power. I remember being amazed that she was doing this—and that it was being televised. We were glued to the set before we went off to the protest we were attending.
In order to speak her truth to power, Hill had to use words in the grand theatrical rotunda of Washington’s power brokers that had heretofore not been heard there, much less televised. Phrases like “pubic hair on my Coke can,” and “Long Dong Silver” that Thomas had spoken in her presence and which constituted a large part of her sexual harassment charge went as “viral” as things could go in 1991—and a media frenzy ensued. What ultimately became clear is that a panel of fifteen white senators listening to two African Americans—one female and one male—engage in what they saw as a “he said, she said” battle left them with their hands tied. They could not hear either side correctly—they could not hear “pubic hair on my Coke” – it was un-thinkable—that is they did not think it—and so, they could relate to almost nothing Hill said.
What they could relate to apparently was the fear that Thomas put in their minds when he accused them of performing a “high tech lynching of uppity blacks” –with this expert turn of phrase, Thomas wiped the slate clean in terms of the minds of the Senators. While some of them may have thought Hill might have been telling the truth—it was less anxiety producing to remove her from the debate that in would be to derail the nomination of an African American male and be accused of egregious racism. Joe Biden shut down the hearing.
What is horrible historically, in watching this documentary and something most of the viewing public glued to the television did not know is that there were other women (among them Angela Wright and Rose Jourdain) who were willing to testify against the nomination of Clarence Thomas—who would have provided similar testimony to that of Anita Hill. They were not allowed to speak after the white panel of Senators was accused of racism by Clarence Thomas. These women were not allowed to “speak truth to power”– at least not in televised testimony–so Anita Hill was left to stand alone. And Thomas was confirmed.
However–history/herstory has shown that Hill’s brave act of “speaking truth to power” was not in vain in 1991. In 1992, a record number of women ran for public office and won. In the U.S. Senate, eleven women ran and five won seats–including one incumbent candidate. In the House of Representatives, twenty-four women won new seats. 1992 was the “Year of the Woman.”
Sexual harassment cases more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996 and… awards to victims under federal laws almost quadrupled–from $7.7 million to $27.8 million.
Was this a reaction to the Thomas nomination? Many feel that yes—since Anita Hill’s allegations were not taken seriously by a Senate that was 98% male—in order for such allegations to be taken seriously women had to hold public office.
What are the costs of speaking out? Hill states that she had to speak out—she had a truth which she felt had to be heard. The effects on her own life were immense—she received death threats. In the documentary we see the files and files (of cabinets, plural) that hold all of the letters—good and bad– she received. The life she might have led—in fact the life that was referred to by one of her supporters who testified that she had spoken of the harassment previously to the Washington hearings said he felt Dr. Hill may have shown up in the grand rotunda for a very different purpose if she had chosen not to testify—that she herself may have been nominated as a Supreme Court justice.
This, of course, would not be the case after the public testimony. In the film, during the run of the credits, we see Hill unzip the dry cleaner bag of the iconic blue dress she wore during the hearings. A dress the color which was seen as “bold and remarkable” for the occasion– is also, we see at the end of the movie, a dress she would never wear again. Although she would by anyone’s account continue to live a “bold and remarkable” life—it would be one marked forever and deeply with her 1991 decision to ‘speak truth to power’.”
“Polls show that during the time of testimony 70% of people believed Professor Anita Hill to be committing perjury. Hill spoke of how everyday she was aware that 7 out of 10 people believed her to be a liar and how this affected her ability to complete such simple tasks as grocery shopping in the public eye. Much emphasis was made by Hill that her support system is the reason she has accomplished so much and moved on to become who she is now.”
Because of the seats saved for me, I ended up sitting right behind the row of seats where three of Anita Hill’s sisters sat—and where one of the four people who testified on Hill’s behalf also sat: Susan Hoerchner.
Hoerchner’s testimony speaks to what we, who dialogue religiously and morally, often grapple with: complicity and silence as opposed to “speaking truth to power.” If we don’t speak up—who will speak up? Hill felt that—and rightfully so– it was vital that others supported her. It is important to remember that several women were actually ready to speak to also corroborate her testimony—but they were not allowed to speak. The four who did speak provided testimony that Hill had spoken of these sexual harassment allegations earlier. Hoerchner’s testimony was crucial—not just to the testimony at large—but to Hill’s well-being. It is documented that Hill needed her support system to survive the barrage of hate and media scrutiny that her life would become. She needed those who would say “I believe Anita.”
Matthew 25:40 says: “Whatever you do to the least of me, you do unto me.” This verse speaks to our need to recognize the importance of standing next to one another. “The least of” is less “the least of” if there are more of them. How can we stand in support of one another?
Anita Hill does not regret her choice to “speak truth to power.” She does regret the pain it caused her family, her friends, and those that stood with her. However– she is very clear that she did what she had to do—and those that stood with her—did what they had to do. I was able to speak to Susan Hoerchner and have my picture taken with her. I thanked her and became very choked up suddenly meeting her—this woman who had the courage to stand shoulder to shoulder with Anita Hill and her 1991 testimony. If not for those who stand with us, we stand alone.
We must do what we have to do—we must “speak truth to power.” And we must stand with the least of these—as one of the least of these or in solidarity.
A strong woman is a woman bleeding
inside. A strong woman is a woman making
herself strong every morning while her teeth
loosen and her back throbs. Every baby,
a tooth, midwives used to say, and now
every battle a scar. A strong woman
is a mass of scar tissue that aches
when it rains and wounds that bleed
when you bump them and memories that get up
in the night and pace in boots to and fro.
A strong woman is a woman who craves love
like oxygen or she turns blue choking.
A strong woman is a woman who loves
strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly
terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong
in words, in action, in connection, in feeling;
she is not strong as a stone but as a wolf
sucking her young. Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is other’s loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.
Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.