Don’t Let What Dr. Christine Blasey Ford Did Be In Vain


Like many women of my generation, I know exactly where I was when Anita Hill testified that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. I was in college, huddled on grungy common area couches, riveted by what was unfolding on the many TVs broadcasting the hearings. Perhaps my experience was extra charged, given that I was at a women’s college. (Months later, we would be outside the White House chanting “Free Barbara’s Bush.”) But as outraged as we unanimously were at Hill’s treatment at the hands of the all white, all male Senate Judiciary committee, there’s another truth that is harder to remember: We didn’t automatically trust Hill the way women now trust Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

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Although our outrage in her treatment was unwavering, the support of Hill, as an individual, was less than forthcoming. People whispered about how Hill had worked in a Republican administration and had willingly followed her boss, Thomas, an extreme conservative. Watching Dr. Ford testify about her alleged attempted sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, it was clear that Dr. Ford entered this process leaps ahead of Hill. Polls already show that more people believe Ford than believe Kavanaugh. After Hill’s hearing, twice as many Americans believed Thomas as believed Hill.

It undoubtedly and regrettably helps that Dr. Ford is white, married and a registered Democrat. People have more ways to watch what’s happening and more ways to show their support for Dr. Ford via hashtags and social media. She is bolstered by a wave of similar female testimony in the campus sexual assault movement and #MeToo. Anita Hill was one woman “on trial;” Dr. Ford represents all of the women currently speaking up against gross sexual behavior.

In the weeks and years after Hill’s hearings, a more complete picture of her emerged: brilliant, poised, determined. I think anyone who has met Hill would say it’s a genuine honor to be in her presence. I first saw her in person several months after the hearings, at San Francisco’s iconic church, Glide Memorial. Their services could be something of a see-and-be-seen moment for local progressives, and she was just there trying—and failing—to blend in with the rest of us. Twenty years later, I was part of a group that planned a conference to honor Hill (and edited a book on the subject). There’s a comment from that day stands out in my memory. Legal scholar Patricia J. Williams said, “We do Hill an injustice if we freeze her in time as an icon of the hearings, or the symbol of a single event.” Hill was so much more than the the woman in the blue dress testifying. A graduate of Yale Law School, in a class of few women and few people of color, she was a pioneer.

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‘We do Hill an injustice if we freeze her in time as an icon of the hearings.’

It’s something I now worry about for Dr. Ford. In the wars of ‘he said, she said,’ ‘she’ has traditionally been the biggest loser. The past year has seen a surprising shift. Some men have lost their jobs on claims of sexual harassment or assault allegations alone, suggesting that women’s truths were suddenly inalienable. Trial by media and popular opinion is an efficient way to expose legitimate abuse and abusers. But women don’t exactly win in this process either. In the absence of the “burden of proof” promised by the court, women who accuse men of sexual misconduct bear the burden of their doubters. They face new levels of media exposure and doxxing. They have to live with accusations that they have in turn “ruined” someone’s life and reputation.

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After all Ford and Hill have done, it’s an unfair additional burden to make them spokespeople for their worst memories. Why should a woman’s unwanted personal experience define her professional life? No doubt both Hill and Ford are feminist heroines, regardless of any self-identification. They spoke their truths, thus freeing other women to tell theirs. That’s as feminism 101 as it gets. But they have done their part and it’s time for us to do ours.

Coming forward about your experiences is one way to affect change, but it’s not the only one. Hill’s testimony ushered in one of the earliest examples of a “Year of the Woman.” In 1992, a record number of women ran for office, bringing us the first African-American woman senator, Carol Moseley Braun. California became the first state to have two female senators: Dianne Feinstein, who went on to bring Dr. Ford’s story to the Senate Judiciary, and her longtime colleague Barbara Boxer. Washington Senator Patty Murray won a seat vacated by a man who resigned amid sexual assault allegations, primarily on her experience as a mom and having grown up a bit on welfare. That year there was palpable energy around women putting themselves out there, often citing Hill as their inspiration.

After all Ford has done, it’s unfair to make her a spokesperson for her worst memories.

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I didn’t run for office, but Anita Hill did inspire me to become an activist. Before her testimony, I had always thought there was someone more powerful than me who would take up the issues I cared about. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s appointment was the moment I turned the question back on myself and asked what I could do. I created a voter engagement project, initially aimed at voter turnout in states where women were running, which led to creating a feminist organization, The Third Wave, which led to writing books and ultimately to becoming a rare professional feminist long before every other woman had a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” tote bag.

I think women are motivated when things are desperate, and when they have a community of support. The day after the 2016 election, I was asked by a reporter if Trump’s win would set women back. Precisely the opposite, I said. If Trump can win, I think more women will look around and say, “If he can do it, I can.” Trump has since made political moves that may set women back—Supreme Court nominations among them—but my prediction has been borne out. An “incredible explosion” of 40,000 women told EMILY’s List they wanted to run for office and an historic 256 women will appear on Congressional ballots in November.

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Years ago, I visited a private high school that was making a good faith effort to get female students into elected positions in student government. I learned that these positions were more appealing to male students not because they cared about student government, but because they hadn’t made a long term investment in something else they cared about—community service, peer mentoring, the arts—like the girls had. The boys ‘needed’ an easy grab at leadership to bolster their resumes. That’s when I realized that politics is at its worst when its the culmination of ambition. Politics should be the spark of ambition.

Politics shouldn’t be the culmination of ambition. It should be the spark of it.

If I can glean a lesson Hill’s hearing and the past week, it’s that what we do with it matters most. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond. Ford, like Hill before her, has become symbolic of a too familiar tale for women. But I don’t think feminism will ever realize its promise of equality only by empowering women to come forward about inequality. We have to acknowledge that the entitlement that makes men the decision-makers on how women are treated is overinflated. We need stop contributing to hot air.

Whether Kavanaugh or the next man up is confirmed, someone who doesn’t have women’s best interests at heart will sit on the Supreme Court for generations. I think the bigger impact of this moment will be felt when we each decide to do something rather than waiting for someone to solve everything.



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