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Dr. Barbara Ransby: What the Defamation of Anita Hill Can Teach Us About the Kavanaugh Hearings

StorySeptember 24, 2018
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News that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will testify Thursday against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh has prompted many to warn senators not to repeat the mistakes of the Anita Hill hearings of 1991, when Hill was questioned by an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee over her allegations that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her in the workplace. In the weeks after Hill testified, nearly 1,600 black feminists organized as “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” and signed a manifesto published in an advertisement in The New York Times. We speak with historian, author and activist Barbara Ransby, one of the initiators of the manifesto, who is now a professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to go right now back to Chicago, where we have just hooked up by satellite historian Barbara Ransby. She is the person who helped to organize the letter called—or the movement called “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” a proclamation that was published in The New York Times in November of 1991, reading, quote, “We are particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of Professor Anita Hill, an African American woman who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her own experience of sexual abuse.”

We are joined by Professor Ransby now. If you can take us back to 1991, as we just heard Alexis Goldstein talking about organizing 1,100 women at Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s alma mater and high school, what you did back with Anita Hill and why you did it?

BARBARA RANSBY: So, in 1991, we—myself, Elsa Barkley Brown and Deborah King—organized an ad campaign. And it was really in response to the—to what you’ve already described as the outrageous—what we felt was the outrageous treatment of Dr. Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee. We wanted to say we believed her. We also wanted to put her statement in a larger context of sexism and racism that black women experience. And we did this, you know, before the internet. So we got letters. We had an 800 phone line. You know, we really reached far and wide. And I think many people were watching the spectacle of those hearings and were outraged by it. And we wanted to give voice to that rage. We wanted to insert our voices as black feminists into a public discourse. And so we wanted to put the ad—we put the ad in The New York Times. We put it in several African-American newspapers, as well. And then an organization called AAWIDOO, African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, grew out of that and lasted for several years, engaged in various work around gender justice.

I see a lot of similarities, you know, with this case. There are some obvious differences. Christine Blasey Ford is alleging actual sexual assault. Anita Hill was alleging—and we believe her—we believe—I believe Christine Blasey Ford. But the difference between harassment and sexual assault is a significant one. The racial and class backgrounds of the accuser and the accused is different. And, of course, it’s 27 years later. So, all those things are part of my reaction to this. But despite #MeToo, despite all of the heroic work of so many women organizers for so many years, patriarchy and misogyny are still very much alive and well, and we see it playing out in how these stories are being retold, but also in how the senators, Republican senators, are behaving—with skepticism and concern more about optics than substance.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, people may not realize it was the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 that was led by Joseph—that was led by Senator Joe Biden. It was a Democratic majority Senate Judiciary Committee that the Republicans don’t want to repeat the optics of, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford pushing very hard to be questioned by the senators. All the current Senate Republican senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee are white men. There are four Democratic women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And, of course, it’s Republican. But if you could talk about what Anita Hill was up against? They want a woman lawyer today to be the questioner of Dr. Ford representing the Republicans.

BARBARA RANSBY: Right. I mean, I think this is—you know, as I said before, I think it’s more a concern with the optics, which, in the case of Anita Hill, was so powerful to have this panel of white men looking down upon her, asking her intrusive, embarrassing, presumptuous questions, questioning if she was in her right mind later—I mean, a whole number of things. The woman—”Are you a woman scorned?” was probably the ultimate low point. But I also wanted to comment, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Of Howell Heflin.

BARBARA RANSBY: Yeah, Howell Heflin. But, you know, Joe Biden, I think, has expressed some regret about how he handled the hearing. There were other witnesses who were standing ready to corroborate Anita Hill’s allegations, who were not allowed to testify. And I think that’s something to consider as we’re considering this case, as well. Yeah, I mean, optics are a concern.

I want to say, you know, that it’s outrageous what happened—what women are alleging happened 35 years ago at Georgetown Prep and, more recently, at Yale in terms of Kavanaugh, but what’s also outrageous is the feigned disbelief of these senators. I don’t think for one minute that they find it implausible that these kinds of things happen. They are so pervasive. One in six women experience some form of sexual assault. And so, you know, I think trying to create a scenario where they are not hovering above this woman, appearing to be interrogating her, I think that is a political move. It’s an opportunistic move. They are concerned with the theatrics of this. But I also think, in their heart of hearts, they are as familiar as all of us are with these kinds of instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment, particularly privileged men being insulated from the consequences of their actions. So the outrage, the feigned outrage, the feigned disbelief, I think is also a part of the theatrics.

AMY GOODMAN: And very interestingly, Professor Ransby, you have several of the senators who were involved with questioning Anita Hill in 1991 who are on the committee today.


AMY GOODMAN: Namely, Senator Grassley, also Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who asked Anita Hill what she had to gain by testifying against Clarence Thomas.

BARBARA RANSBY: Right. Yeah, 27 years later, and I think it’s three of them are still there. And some of the same kind—

AMY GOODMAN: Orrin Hatch, as well, who is saying—


AMY GOODMAN: —no matter what happens, he believes Kavanaugh.

BARBARA RANSBY: Yeah, I know, and what an outrageous thing to say. But also, you know, the same kinds of questions are being asked: Why did she wait? Why didn’t she report it right away? I mean, anyone remotely familiar with the pattern of sexual assault knows how hard it is for women to come forward, for survivors to come forward. Many people simply swallow the pain. Many women are fearful of the consequences of coming forward. And if the senators were even slightly familiar with the literature on this, they would certainly know that. But that is an echo of 1991, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And, you know, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has made very clear she wants the FBI to investigate. Like what the “I” stands for in FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


AMY GOODMAN: Anita Hill did have an FBI investigation, got one. It lasted for three days.

BARBARA RANSBY: Right, yeah. I mean, I’m not a big fan of the FBI, but in this case, certainly, I think an FBI investigation is warranted. There was an FBI investigation with Anita Hill. I think Anita Hill made a very strong, persuasive, incredible argument and told a story that was very compelling in terms of what happened to her vis-à-vis Clarence Thomas. You know, we believed her, and I think we’ve been borne out.

But the other thing I want to say is that in this atmosphere of Donald Trump—I think that’s another significant—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

BARBARA RANSBY: —significant change, when you have someone who is an admitted sexual predator in the White House. The Republican senators can tolerate Trump; they certainly are prepared to defend and tolerate the kinds of actions that Brett Kavanaugh is alleged.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is Part 1 of our discussion. Barbara Ransby has a new book out. It’s called Making All Black Lives Matter. Barbara Ransby is a professor of women’s studies and history at University of Illinois at Chicago.

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