Dialogs: Anita Hill Talks About Need to Believe Women in Chicago Humanities Festival Event

The Chicago Humanities Festival has been offering in-person programs under the spring theme of “Public.” Two programs on May 7 at the UIC Dorin Center featured law professor Anita Hill talking about her new book Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence and sharing her first-hand knowledge of Supreme Court corruption. Later in the day, Ambassador Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch chatted about her new book Lessons from the Edge: A Memoir, and discussed her direct knowledge of executive branch corruption. 

Hill first spoke solo about growing up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. She didn’t know about the Muskogee and Creek tribal lands on which she lived, nor about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre that had occurred just 60 miles away. She lamented that missing education, saying “we might have made amends if we had known that history earlier. But we didn’t know what we didn’t know.” She then introduced her book, “a manifesto, not a memoir,” about her life before, during and after when she was thrust into the spotlight in 1991 during her Senate testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings.

At that time, a panel of older white men (including then-Senator Joe Biden) grilled her as she recounted Thomas’s continuous sexual harassment when they worked together. There were only two women in the Senate at the time, when legislative women didn’t even have their own bathrooms. The following election year, 1992, six more women were elected to the Senate, including the first African American woman, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. “Part of my legacy has been to elect more women,” said Hill.

She compared her experience with that of Ketanji Brown Jackson, recently confirmed as a new Supreme Court Justice. Hill said, “there’s no excusing her confirmation process,” adding that those kind of abusive attacks needs to change because it happens daily in workplaces. She wants these types of public humiliations to shine a light on the many private shamings. These stories are difficult to navigate, she noted, but necessary since 48% of young kids report bullying or some type of sexual harassment, which can lead to suicide. The burden of proof for many cases might not be met because the offending behavior is “not that extreme,” but it’s the more subtle, everyday violence that’s pervasive. “So who is worthy of protection?” Hill asked. “It’s time to stop ‘admiring’ the problem and get to solutions.” 

Hill was then joined by enthusiastic moderator, Chicago journalist Laura Washington, for a sit-down chat followed by an audience Q&A. Hill first clarified that her experience, while difficult, was “not a burden, but growth.” Washington asked about the pandemic’s influence on domestic violence, and Hill said that lockdown further clarified inequalities in the system, exacerbating the existing 10 million violence and homelessness cases, as well as learning loss issues, before 2020. 

The Brandeis University law professor is also concerned about normalizing race and gender violence from a young age, such as when people toss off bromides like “boys will be boys” or “if he hits you, that means he likes you.” That’s telling children that nobody will do anything to help if something happens. She encouraged audience members to learn more about the protections of Title IX, the 1972 act that protects against sexual discrimination in educational activities or programs receiving federal financial assistance. She recommended sites like Know Your IX, which empowers students to end school-based dating and sexual violence. 

She also name-checked Senator Chuck Grassley, who said he would change the Senate Judiciary rules after the 1991 confirmation debacle, disallowing lies and advocating for more robust investigations. Unsurprisingly, nothing has changed in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” over the past three decades. Then and now, there’s no procedure for witnesses to come forward with valuable background information about prospective jurists. After Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, the FBI admitted that it received over 4,500 tips about his history and conduct, none of which were investigated. 

When asked by an audience member if she thinks that the committee believed those allegations, Professor Hill said, “I think those senators believed me, Kavanaugh-accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, but were afraid of the facts. They felt power in their systems, that they had absolute control over the process. They didn’t want to act, but just hold power.” 

She’s worried about the overturning of Roe V. Wade, as a draft opinion doing so was leaked last week.  If that happens, then there’s “a potential to erase a whole slate of protections for equity.” She agrees that SCOTUS’s authority has been undermined, and wondered “who’s in charge” when an open seat was stolen from President Obama and when Thomas’s wife Ginni helped plan the January 6th insurrection. 

The US judicial system still has a long way to go to achieve equity, but, as opening speaker and Illinois judge Mary Mikva said, “It’s a relay race, not a sprint or a marathon.” 

Illinoisans have the unique opportunity to push extra hard for court reform. One of our Senators, Dick Durbin, has served on the Senate Judiciary Committee for 22 years and is currently the chair. Use a service like Resistbot (text RESIST to 50409) to directly contact him and other representatives to demand measures such as:

  • Write and enforce a code of ethics to prevent bias and politicization, and to provide more court transparency
  • Require term limits (such as 10 years) for all judges, including Supreme Court justices
  • Expand the Supreme Court to 13 seats, as well as similar expansions in lower federal courts
  • Prevent political grandstanding by conducting judicial vetting via personal interviews and written questions, rather than televised stunts just to create campaign ad propaganda
  • Voice support for President Biden’s Court Reform Commission
  • All of the above won’t be possible with the filibuster in place, so demand that the Jim Crow-era relic be eliminated

Remember that democracy is a verb, and if voters don’t use their voices now, they might be silenced after this next midterm election. Also make sure you’re registered to vote for the Illinois primary election on June 28, 2022. 

The Chicago Humanities Festival spring sessions continue with the “Public” theme on May 14, with speakers including actor Selma Blair, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, and deaf Dancing with the Stars champion Nyle DiMarco. 

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.