PRINT January 1992

Democracy, Inc.

Carol Squiers

EVEN BEFORE THE HILL-THOMAS hearings were over, a great moaning and wailing had begun about the terrible, even pornographic things that were being said in public. It is a measure of the wide-ranging practice of and preference for repression and denial in our country that not hearing the bad stuff was widely deemed preferable to acknowledging just how bad and real it might be. But repression and denial were not only a response to the hearings. They were, in fact, at the heart of them, supporting Thomas while casting out Hill. Thomas triumphed by hewing to the nearly sacred American belief that there should be limits to everything—including how much truth has to be told.

Clarence Thomas’ repression was ongoing, essential, righteous, and pivotal. The crucial point in the hearings devolved exactly on this repression and occurred on the evening of Friday, October 11, after Anita Hill had given her statement and been subjected to hours of often repetitive and pointless questioning by the good senators, who were clearly wandering in territory that is both alien and all too familiar to them. When Thomas again sat down before the microphones and made his now-famous “high-tech lynching” statement, he also made an admission that should have shaken the senatorial investigators and all U.S. citizens to the core: he proclaimed, proudly and self-righteously, that he had not even listened to Hill’s testimony.

By not listening to Hill, Thomas branded her assertions as beneath his notice, a strategy so common in the way men deal with women that his incredible statement was tacitly acknowledged, quickly absorbed, and simply passed over. The only senator who tried to confront Thomas about his repression was Alabama Senator Howell Heflin, the man who had inadvertently triggered Thomas’ proud admission of ignorance. “Now, you, I suppose, have heard Professor Hill, Miss Hill, Anita F. Hill, testify today,” Heflin said, stumbling as he tried to get a handle on what to call her, since neither Mother, Whore, nor Miss America were appropriate.

“No, I haven’t,” Thomas angrily replied.

“You didn’t listen?” Heflin asked, looking thoroughly flabbergasted, sagging in his seat at the surprise.

“No, I didn’t. I’ve heard enough lies.”

That back-and-forth continued for a minute or so, Heflin seemingly too shocked by Thomas’ remark simply to accept it and proceed. Heflin pointed out that Thomas had put himself “in an unusual position” by not listening to Hill’s testimony, and continued: “You in effect are defending yourself, and basically some of us want to be fair to you, fair to her, but if you didn’t listen to what she said today, then that puts it somewhat in a more difficult task to find out what the actual facts are relative to this matter.”

“The facts keep changing, senator,” Thomas responded acidly. “When the FBI visited me, the statements to this committee and the questions were one thing, the FBI’s subsequent questions were another thing, and the statements today as I received summaries of them were another thing.” (Emphasis added.) Thomas felt qualified to make a flat statement about the alleged discrepancies in the facts recited that day without even having listened to the only definitive recitation of them, which came from Hill herself. He not only passed judgment on the “facts” without hearing them firsthand, preferring to listen to partial summaries given to him by his wife, he privileged the words transmitted by a government bureaucracy over the direct testimony of his accuser. That such a response did not augur well for Thomas’ future behavior on the court was something Heflin tried to address. “Judge,” he said, “if you’re sitting on the bench and you approach a case where you appear to have a closed mind and that you are only right, doesn’t it raise issues of judicial temperament?”

Greeted by hisses and boos from the audience, Heflin quickly backed off, dropping this critical line of questioning and letting Thomas off the hook. It was at this point that the tide turned in Thomas’ favor. Acceptance of his willing repression of Hill’s charges was in essence acceptance of his point of view. Once the senators acquiesced to the contempt with which he was treating both Hill and the confirmation process, they assumed a passive stance in relation to Thomas that persisted throughout the administration’s subsequent attempt to destroy Anita Hill’s character and credibility.

Yet Hill herself contributed her own measure of repression to the harassment equation. After all, she had said nothing back in 1981 to 1983, when Thomas was talking dirty to her and exercising his power over her. Yet, as one of her defenders pointed out, it is not really difficult to believe that Hill had put up with what Thomas dished out—it’s a common enough scenario. What was more damaging and disturbing was the fact that she had never told any of her women friends exactly what Thomas had done and said to her. Hill has been described as being very private, but it was more a profound emotional isolation that made her hold her tongue.

The final thing that defeated her, and looked like repression when set against Thomas’ histrionics, was Hill’s own bearing and behavior. Although her cool, collected stance initially operated to her benefit, it very quickly was constructed as being too cool, too collected, too calculating—if he had said all those horrible things, why wasn’t she more visibly upset? Why, when Thomas himself seemed close to tears (of rage), did she seem so detached? And anyway, who was this creature, this well-educated, well-dressed black woman?

The very positive attributes that made Hill a respectable witness were what threw the senators—and the American public—into confusion. Anita Hill simply does not conform to any known stereotype of the black woman. Neither a “welfare queen,” a crack addict, nor a mother of a child killed in a drive-by shooting, Hill appeared so unique as to seem a dangerous anomaly. Her qualities of seriousness, industriousness, and moralism could only be skin deep, like makeup and fashion; just beneath that surface must lurk the soul of the deceitful, lazy woman asking for a handout, or a crazy person, which, in fact, is how she was painted.

Only a limited number of qualities will add up to a picture of a “whole” woman on the cultural register. The earnest, ambitious career woman continues to be a fragmentary and distrusted creature; not being married or having children works mightily against her. She thus seems to have given up the dual prerogatives of seduction and nurturance, or, rather, she seems to have repressed them. That repression is read as withholding, as a willful and essentially lunatic and evil alienation from men, an expression of female independence that no politician is willing to condone. Anita Hill’s no-win situation is the predicament of all educated and/or professional women in both private and professional life, whether black, brown, yellow, red, or white. It is at the heart of the drive to annihilate the fragile gains that women have made, both in and out of the workplace.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. She is a frequent contributor to Artforum.