Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence
- By Anita Hill
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Kitty Kelley
- September 24, 2021
An instructive but dry treatise on a grim subject.
Despite their mutual animosity, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill will be forever linked as a result of the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. At that time, she accused him, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of sexual harassment.
The televised hearings, chaired by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, riveted more than 20 million Americans and many others around the world watching on CNN as the unknown law professor testified under oath that President George H.W. Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court had harassed her by talking suggestively “about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts, involved in various sex acts,” which included animals, group sex, and rape scenes. After three days of testimony, Thomas was confirmed 52-48. Hill was pilloried as a liar, a fantasist, and an erotomaniac.
It’s worth noting, three decades later, that now President Biden sits in the White House and Justice Thomas sits on the highest court in the land, whereas Professor Hill struggled for years to survive her notoriety as a whistleblower. Although it cost her a tenured position at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, she does not regret her decision to testify.
For years, Hill shrank from the divisive reactions to her Senate testimony (a CNN/Gallup poll showed 52 percent of the country believed Thomas), but now she’s unafraid to step forward and take on her critics. “As a victim and a teacher, I had a unique perspective to speak from,” she writes in her third book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence. Reflecting on the 1991 hearings, she chastises late Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) for “his tittering tone” and “his smirk” and for claiming there couldn’t have been sexual harassment because Thomas never physically touched Hill.
She further faults Specter for his flawed thinking “that sexual assault was the only behavior that called for judicial disqualification.” She blames the entire committee for being slow to recognize the right to work in a workplace free from abuse.
Hill also upbraids the late Justice Anthony Kennedy for his 1999 dissent in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, in which he wrote that “boys will be boys” and condoned groping by grade schoolers as “routine behavior.” Kennedy dismissed such conduct as a prank, mere hijinks. Hill denounced his dissent for normalizing harmful misogynist behavior “that [holds] the country back from making progress toward equality.” Lest anyone suggest her criticism to be a carp, she writes:
“Any student of the law knows that language that starts in dissent can someday become the majority opinion.”
Twenty-seven years after her debacle before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hill watched in dismay as history repeated itself when Christine Blasey Ford testified about her alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanagh. In those contentious hearings, Hill recognized the same “victim blaming, flat-out denials, mansplaining and gas-lighting” that she’d endured. Kavanaugh was confirmed 50-48, the second-closest Supreme Court confirmation vote in history.
Now a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis, Hill has put herself in charge of shining a light in a very dark place. She’s become the poster child for ending gender violence and intends to change the violent psyche of America with Believing, which springs from decades of personal recovery and professional research into humanity’s bestial behavior. “For thirty years, this has been my journey and I expect it to continue in some fashion for the rest of my life,” she writes.
Hill has schooled herself in the miasma of gender violence and how it imperils our country’s health, safety, economic security, housing, transportation and educational opportunities. As might be expected of an academic, her tone is a bit pedantic as she makes her grim case with studies and citations and statistics. She admits up front that she’s “neither charismatic nor a gifted speaker.”
Unfortunately, she’s right.
At various points, this disquisition cries out for a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but Anita Hill is not Mary Poppins. Her treatise is on man’s inhumanity to man, and while her catalog of ills is short on solutions, she spotlights behavior that will make some readers cringe at the extent of sexual violence in our society.
Hill focuses like a laser on gender-based attacks in homes, schools, courts, companies, and corporations. She outlines how difficult it is for victims, especially rape victims, to file suit, even if they can afford the lawyer fees. “[T]he hurdles to prevailing in assault and rape suits are still extremely high,” she writes, citing rape as the least-reported criminal offense, with “less than one percent of rapes…likely to result in conviction.”
Midway through her manifesto of misery is a short chapter entitled “Believing that Change is Possible,” which reports the progress made by activists who formed the Hollywood Commission to seek justice for victims of gender violence in the entertainment industry. As a result, men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Les Moonves lost their positions, which gave Hill hope and made her a believer, justifying the title of her book.
“The task of a writer is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem,” Anton Chekhov wrote, and for that, Anita Hill gets high marks. So, caveat emptor: Do not look to Believing for inspiring prose or literary flourish. But perhaps that’s appropriate since there’s no poetry in gender violence.
Kitty Kelley is the author of seven number-one New York Times bestseller biographies, including Nancy Reagan, Jackie Oh!, and The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty. She is on the board of the Independent and has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.