Academy Award-winning documentarian Freida Mock’s new film Anita premiered at Sundance on Saturday, January 19. The film revolves around one of the most famous senate hearings of the late twentieth century, in which attorney Anita Hill accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Over twenty years later, it’s easy to forget the controversy of the Thomas hearings; I was totally unprepared for the gale-force emotions that came from watching them all over again. My history in the workplace led me to a take a personal interest in the case, and Anita brought all my harsh memories back.
At the time of the hearings in 1991, I was a 24 year-old grad student at Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, California. I had just survived a year of nursing a new baby while working as a receptionist in a downtown San Francisco office, pumping breast milk in a bathroom stall, and enduring my supervisor’s frequent comments about the, ummm, “bustiness” of the nursing mother.
I didn’t connect any of this to Hill at the time. I didn’t even think I was being harassed, because, actually, I’d been harassed at all of my workplaces to some degree or another. Some instances seemed like they were just part of the job (requirements for female restaurant workers should include: “must enjoy getting your ass pinched and rated on daily basis; getting ogled by customers, managers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, bussers, waitstaff, and delivery persons”). Other instances, such as an incident that occurred in my job as a nanny, led me to seal my lips and quit in shame, wondering what I had done to bring on the event.
During the Clarence Thomas hearings, I didn’t fully get what was going on. I didn’t foresee how many years of institutionalized, systematic gender discrimination I would face at work because of my body, my clothing choices, and an authoritative voice that brought on more than one frighteningly violent sexual comment. I shared space at Mills with kick-ass moms like Ariel Gore and Teresa Blankmeyer Burke: young, radical, brilliant women who were working themselves to death to create change for mothers in the workplace. And still, it took some time before I could see the invisible, intrinsic problems with gender inequality. I didn’t yet know that my two baby girls would need the voice of women like Anita Hill so badly.
Mock’s striking use of footage from the trials underlines the humiliation of Hill’s testaments. The film makes it clear that the hearing itselfcould be seen as sexual harassment due to her interrogators’ insistence that she repeat Thomas’s embarrassing remarks in front of an entire nation. It was as if the antagonistic senators believed that her veracity could be determined through painful close-ups and harsh harangues. As Mock shows an African-American woman describing her victimization in front of a monolithic row of white male congress members, she presents viewers with a graphic illustration of power imbalance and inequality.
Hill asserts that she never wanted to be a spokesperson, and her friends and colleagues verify in the documentary that she was the last person they could imagine as an activist. Her interviews in the film portray Hill as a serious, modest, no-nonsense woman who “just wanted to get back to teaching contract law at University of Oklahoma.” Nevertheless, the high visibility of her case made her a public example of sexual harrassment, and her basement is filled with around 120,000 letters from mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, partners, and friends of fellow victims. Hill explains that it was these letters that turned her into an activist for women’s rights, and she’s spent the last twenty years working to attack the root– not just the symptoms– of gender inequality.
“Twenty years is [a long time],” Hill said in an interview for the Sundance Channel. “A whole generation of women has come up since then. Film is so amazing. People need to see this record.” Mock’s film shows the evolution of a woman who really only wanted to do her job, brought headfirst into activism by severe inequality in the work place.
Anita is a film I want my daughters to see. As they move away from childhood and into the workplace, they need to know how things were and where they still need to go. One of my daughters now works in an almost entirely male dominated field, while the other is an activist for equalities of all kinds. Though they have lots of work before them, they are still an example of what we have accomplished since Hill’s time in court. Both received the blessed insulation of a women’s college education, both have it ingrained in them that equality is the most important work of their time, and both have benefitted from the sacrifice Hill made when she chose to speak truth to power.
Let the record stand.