At Irvine Auditorium on Wednesday evening, in front of a sold-out crowd, legal scholar and professor Anita Hill spoke in conversation with leading critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw and Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Dorothy Roberts—not answering questions so much as challenging the audience to ask the right ones.
“What is the lesson plan that comes out of this teachable moment?” mused Crenshaw mid-conversation. She then added: “‘#MeToo’ is a moment. ’91 was a moment. The question is, ‘Can we draw a new baseline understanding out of these moments?’ [One] that everyone gets.”
The dialogue, sponsored by the Alice Paul Center and co-sponsored by 17 other departments and organizations at the University, lasted more than an hour and engaged Hill, a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, and Crenshaw, a professor at UCLA Law School and Columbia Law School, with questions about progress made in women’s equality and sexual harassment since the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. Hill commented on her own experience during the hearings, and, of course, what she makes of the bizarre irony that her appearance at Penn—originally arranged in January—would coincide with the swearing-in of another Supreme Court justice accused of sexual misconduct.
“What happened [in the Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearing] was not only a disservice to the principal witnesses, but was a disservice to the American public,” Hill remarked early in the conversation. “We were all disserved in 1991, because people wanted to understand sexual harassment; in 2018, they wanted to understand sexual assault. What it’s like going through that experience? How does a person come forward to respond when they have been assaulted? What is the appropriate way for us to evaluate, in the context of a confirmation hearing, the significance of the information that Professor Blasey Ford brought?”
She continued: “Those were all the things I experienced in 1991, and it was what I experienced in 2018: that failure to really help the public understand very significant interests, issues, and to understand that those issues and seeking truth in those issues aligns with the interests of having a Supreme Court that people have confidence in, faith in, believe in the impartiality and integrity of. And once again, there was this misalignment in those two interests, and understanding the experiences of victims of sexual assault, and the interest of a strong and independent court. [They] were pitted against each other. And that really frames what 1991 was like, and what it’s like today.”
With a sense of near-disbelief, she said the stunning failure of the recent hearings was the inability of lawmakers to develop a better process for it “when they had 27 years to figure it out.”
Still, Hill—not in an act of optimism, exactly, but rather assessing the modern lay of the land—was sure to note that there are differences between the 1991 and 2018 hearings. She mentioned that there are now four women on the Senate Judiciary Committee and four people of color—a difference she emphasized is one of “true substance.” Hill and Crenshaw—who advised Hill’s legal team in the 1991 hearings—also discussed differences in the optics, with Crenshaw observing that there was no “football field-sized” space between Christine Blasey Ford and lawmakers as there was with Hill, that Blasey Ford’s family could be seen supporting her immediately behind her in a more intimate setting, and, of course, Republican lawmakers barely uttered a word in their questioning Blasey Ford, opting instead for an outside, female prosecutor to conduct the line of questioning. In Hill’s day, she noted, male senators, like the late Arlen Specter (R-PA), interrogated her aggressively.
It’s also important to acknowledge the progress made since 1991, Hill said, pointing to legislative, policy, and larger educational differences.
“We are in a different place, in many ways: in a different place politically, in terms of our information and knowledge base of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and we are in a different place, I believe, socially,” she said.
Recalling a letter she once received, Hill spoke about how the telling of individual stories has become more commonplace, with people—especially those of color—more aware of sexism as a pillar alongside racism.
“These were things that happened that were good, but yet we get to  and it’s like we find out that it’s almost as though none of that took place,” Hill said.
Crenshaw brought a critique of The New York Times’ portrayal of “down-home courting”—the false idea that black women found Thomas’ behavior acceptable—in its editorials from the Thomas hearings era, and the effect that had on the black community, including the victim-blaming of black women. She went on to speak to the shadow of “conceptual asymmetry” and “discursive inequality” that continues to allow responses like “#HimToo” to surface. And Hill made mention of the increasing prevalence of non-disclosure agreements and forced arbitration since 1991.
Hill and Crenshaw also described the Federalist Society’s influence on confirmation processes, and the dominance of structural systems on the narrative of sexual assault—right down to cultures of sports teams, fraternities, corporations, and other institutions that enable a culture of sexual harassment.
The challenge, then, Hill said, was not to just call out the people putting forward this behavior, but “deal with the systems protecting them.”
And, too, recognizing the limitations lawmakers impose on what knowledge comes to light in hearings like hers and Blasey Ford’s.
“How do we correct that?” Hill asked. “That’s really the question. How do we not only make sure our representatives actually represent us and tell us the truth, but how do we change the way that they do business so that they will be responsible and accountable for making sure when any of these issues come, that the American public knows and is well-informed—informed enough to make their own decisions about how they should be voting in a confirmation process.”
Kathleen Brown, director of the Alice Paul Center who organized the dialogue, said the evening’s topics and points served as examples of how complicated the underlying substance of these hearings are—bathed in histories not often put into the public consciousness.
“One thing [I hope listeners will] take away is to not default to thinking about sexual harassment and sexual violence just in terms of the politics that played out in the Blasey Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, but in terms of the complexities of long histories of race and gender and sexuality, really affecting whose word is believed, who is more likely to be suspected of being a perpetrator, who according to our culture are the more credible victims,” Brown said.
“One of the reasons we have [Hill and Crenshaw] in dialogue with each other is so students don’t fall into the error of thinking this is a simple issue.”
The Alice Paul Center’s “Beyond Free Speech and Safe Space” speaker series, of which the Hill and Crenshaw event was the inaugural event, will continue in November with “It’s Not Funny: The Subversive Politics of Comedy,” featuring comedy performances and talkback from comedians Kelli Dunham and Robin Cloud.