One of the lasting images of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy was the photograph of the “Boxer rebellion,” the all-female Congressional delegation marching up the steps to the Senate to demand that it investigate credible claims of sexual harassment. Outside this frame, and perhaps more compelling, are the stories of when each of these women realized that intolerably destructive dynamics of power were being normalized or even defended by colleagues, spouses, friends and elected officials. Every woman who was prompted into action by Anita Hill has a moment like this.
For me, that moment came after a long day working alongside two African-American men who had come to the Capitol to defend Hill against Thomas’s reckless claim that he was a victim of a “high-tech lynching.” We had hoped that this appeal to African-American racial solidarity would at least be tempered by the recognition that Hill was no finger-pointing Miss Ann but an African-American woman whose story of workplace sexual harassment could not have been a mystery to most African-Americans. Emerging from the Capitol, we found ourselves surrounded by a group of African-Americans, mostly women, hands linked in song and praise, seeking God’s help to vanquish this latest threat to Thomas’s elevation to the Supreme Court.
Shocked, shaken and disturbed, we pushed our way through to a taxi, where talk radio was blasting another harangue against Anita Hill, and the driver, an African immigrant, joined the chorus of denunciation. Our experience was not, as we’d come to learn, isolated. Across the country, black feminists were spurred into action, no doubt first by the shocking way that a black woman was being framed, and second by the absence of critical voices seeking to puncture the race and gender stereotypes in play. That these stereotypes were not solely the product of the white imagination simply added insult to injury.
In the days following the hearings, the New York Times printed an op-ed by Orlando Patterson that speculated that Thomas may well have said the things Hill described but nonetheless justified Thomas’s denial, arguing that Hill’s complaints came out of the “white, upper-middle-class work world,” whereas Thomas’s behavior was really just courtship, if you looked at it from a “Southern working-class” and especially black perspective. Frustrated, three black feminists—Elsa Barkley Brown, Deborah King and Barbara Ransby—gave birth to a manifesto that captured the rage of thousands of black women. In less than six weeks, nearly 1,600 women joined an effort to buy their way into the discourse, contributing nearly $50,000 to pay for a Times ad, published November 17, 1991, called “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” (AAWIDO).
That manifesto still stands among black feminists as one of the most poignant moments of our own truth-speaking against feminist and antiracist mobilizations that frequently ignored our very existence. In this episode, the histories of feminism and antiracism were put into opposition, rendering Anita Hill a raceless figure that could represent either the puritanical sexlessness of white feminism or the universal figure of female oppression. Within the African-American community, arguments that sexual harassment was a product of white sexual discourse and that lynching symbolized the essential character of racist terror in effect erased black women from the picture.