She had it dry-cleaned and put it away, layered in tissue, never to be worn again: an aqua-blue, demurely double-buttoned linen dress. To watch Anita Hill unwrap it and shake it out, smiling in a bittersweet, almost affectionate way—as if to say, Oh, if frocks could talk!—was unforgettable. Sure, it bordered on stagy, but there was something wonderful and graceful about Hill’s plucky, good-humored willingness to do this on camera, more than 20 years after the day she spent in that aqua dress, testifying in front of siblings, colleagues, friends, her aging parents and, on the other side of that big green table, a battalion of white guys in suits who called themselves the Senate Judiciary Committee.
By this point in documentary filmmaker Freida Mock’s latest film, called simply Anita, I was so brimming with outrage that this quiet moment in Hill’s closet came as an urgent relief. Reliving Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was like reliving a bad, bad dream.
But the news has been like that lately. The way the senators turned Hill’s willingness to shine a light on a nominee to the nation’s highest court into an opportunity to question her morals, her credibility and her dignity was powerfully reminiscent of the stories many military women have told recently about how they were treated when they tried to report sexual harassment or rape. The senators’ behavior also reminded me of Chris Cuomo’s slimy CNN interview of Amanda Knox. The brutal truth is: two decades after Anita Hill’s testimony, there are still men who apparently find it sporting to force women to use words they would rather not use—and then watch them squirm. There are men who learned nothing from our country’s most notorious sexual harassment scandal beyond what Clarence Thomas learned: when it’s one person’s word against another’s, it’s much better to be male.
Twenty years ago, I was a new mom and I remember thinking: I do not want my daughter to grow up in a world where this happens. But she has grown up in such a world. Anita Hill’s brave testimony could not single-handedly end sexual harassment.
However: it did change things.
Hill’s legacy is most visible toward the end of the film, when you see her speaking to groups of young women and then you see some of those women, in turn, leading groups of teenage girls in frank discussions about sexual harassment and gender equality. This is good news: that more and more women, especially younger women, no longer feel, as Hill did, that their best strategy is to remain silent.
Walking out of SIFF Cinema after a preview screening of Anita, it was vividly clear who has had the more powerful impact on history: not Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is known mainly for his silence on the bench, but Anita Hill, who has spoken about, written about and become a powerful symbol of the real meaning of that overused phrase, “speaking truth to power.” Twenty-two years ago, she was Truth. Power didn’t like it. The spectacle wasn’t pretty, but it was unforgettable.
Anita is screening at the Seattle Film Festival on May 25th, 26th and 27th. Go to SIFF.net for tickets and information.
News Flash: My August 2012 story in Seattle Metropolitan Magazine about younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease won first place in health reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. Honored and grateful to Sharon Monaghan and Cathie Cannon for sharing their story with me.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.