Perhaps what was so deeply gratifying about watching then outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s testimony before both the Senate and House Foreign Relations committees in January 2013, was her confident and authoritative voice as she fielded questions of asinine scrutiny over the Obama Administration’s response to the attacks in Benghazi in September of 2012. I watched her testimony live and marveled at her matter-of-fact tone, her command of the issues, budgetary constrictions, and policy, her unflappability, her righteous anger responding to a committee of men who respected yet condescended to her. My Twitter feed seemed to embrace #bawse Hillary too, and Zerlina was inspired to create this handy piece for posterity.
I thought about this moment as I watched the new documentary Anita: Speaking Truth To Power, which premiered in select cities this past weekend. It was 23 years ago in October when Anita Hill, a law professor at a small school in Oklahoma, became embroiled in a political scandal centering on the nomination of Clarence Thomas, who was tapped in 1991 by President Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. (Read Hill’s Feministing Five interview here and here.) Hill was called upon to testify before an all-white, all-male confirmation committee and detail the depth of sexual harassment and humiliation she experienced under Thomas during her tenure at the EEOC Office in the early 1980s.
Watching the video of her testimony, I was struck by Hill’s demeanor. She was as patient as she was unflappable. At one point, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) displayed such contempt and aggression at Hill’s answers that anyone else I know would have responded with equal anger. Hill was deliberately poised. The hearings were aired on national television, and I’d submit that Hill was reluctant to give America a vision of the angry black woman long before this generation considered it a meme. Hill herself did a Q&A after the screening I attended, and she noted that she is “slow to anger” and that Specter’s aggressive questioning and contempt was a tactic designed to rattle her to silence and discredit her story. He and others wanted provoke an emotional reaction. Hill acknowledged that she was powered by a “rational anger” that helped her maintain her composure surrounded by such hostility. Unlike Clinton, Hill wasn’t empowered to show a righteous anger in 1991, but her truth was clear and by refusing to remain silent, she ignited a national conversation around workplace sexual harassment and sparked a groundswell of activism that helped lead to the election of 53 women (6 Senators, 47 Representatives) to Congress in the 1992 elections.
Yet, our culture still struggles to hear and respect the authority in a woman’s voice in the face of disagreement or controversy. Last month, classics scholar Mary Beard gave a talk at the British Museum exploring Western culture’s legacy of misogyny and the gendering of public speech. Beard reaches back as far as Homer’s Odyssey, quoting Telemachus, the young son of Penelope and Odysseus, who had not returned home from the war: “Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.” Beard notes, “There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.”
Beard connects this legacy to the modern day, drawing parallels between male silencing of female voices in antiquity to the kind the threats women face online and in the political arena:
“But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about. For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves. They include a fairly predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder and so forth (I may sound very relaxed about it now; that doesn’t mean it’s not scary when it comes late at night). But a significant subsection is directed at silencing the woman – ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain. Or it promises to remove the capacity of the woman to speak. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ was one tweet I got. ‘Headlessfemalepig’ was the Twitter name chosen by someone threatening an American journalist. ‘You should have your tongue ripped out’ was tweeted to another journalist. In its crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk. It’s hard not to see some faint connection between these mad Twitter outbursts – most of them are just that – and the men in the House of Commons heckling women MPs so loudly that you simply can’t hear what they’re saying (in the Afghan parliament, apparently, they disconnect the mics when they don’t want to hear the women speak). Ironically the well-meaning solution often recommended when women are on the receiving end of this stuff turns out to bring about the very result the abusers want: namely, their silence. ‘Don’t call the abusers out. Don’t give them any attention; that’s what they want. Just keep mum,’ you’re told, which amounts to leaving the bullies in unchallenged occupation of the playground.”
What we do know is that our silence will not protect us. We face bullies in the playground at whatever costs. Hill’s decision to be truthful and forthright about Thomas’s character shifted the trajectory of her life and career. She has become a reluctant, yet committed, activist for gender equality and justice. That was not an easy path. As the documentary reveals, Hill and her family faced innumerable death threats after her appearance before the committee, forcing her to leave her tenured faculty post at the University of Oklahoma College of Law to Brandeis University. But she has also received thousands of letters thanking her for her courage and empowering other women to find their voice. Twenty years later, I’m grateful that Hill spoke her truth to power so that we can too.
Syreeta McFadden is a writer in Brooklyn.