Anita Hill stares frankly out from the cover of her new book, Believing — which, if you only know her from the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, may lead you to expect the book to be something it’s not.
Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence is not a book about Anita Hill. Yes, it has plenty of her personal stories and, yes, it references her role at the center of the Supreme Court hearing firestorm that first acquainted many Americans with the concept of “sexual harassment.”
But Anita Hill has spent the decades since then as a scholar — she is now a professor of social policy, law, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. After herself being a high-profile example of harassment, she went on to study it and become a highly respected scholar on women’s rights.
Which is to say that it’s fitting that she is on the cover, because this is a book only she could have written.
The book first attempts to show how massive problems like harassment and assault are affecting everyone from the smallest children to adults, from the lowest-wage workers to the highest-paid celebrities. Then, Hill shows both the effects of the problem — the ways it not only hurts individuals but hampers political change and economic growth — and the myriad barriers to solving it. To try to tackle something so complex, she says, feels like trying to “boil the ocean.”
Altogether, Believing is an elegant, impassioned demand that America see gender-based violence as a cultural and structural problem that hurts everyone, not just victims and survivors.
And the phrase “gender-based violence” is intentionally chosen. It covers nonbinary people and men in addition to women, and the “violence” includes a range of behaviors, from rape to intimate partner violence to stalking to harassment.
It’s a phrase chosen, in short, to be expansive and all-encompassing. And Believing, as a book, is itself expansive and all-encompassing.
It’s at times downright virtuosic in the threads it weaves together. Few books out there marry Supreme Court decisions and legal analysis with references to the Netflix series Big Mouth.
But more importantly, it makes the case that as a problem, gender-based violence is almost unimaginably big, inextricably tied to other areas of discrimination and oppression, like racism and transphobia.
Not only that, but she argues that its tendrils reach into nearly every area of life. Hill at various times links gender-based violence to the gender wage gap, the coronavirus pandemic, homelessness, the fact that college athletes aren’t paid, discriminatory prison sentences, and school shootings — just for starters.
So dizzying is Believing that readers may need to concentrate closely to read it; on a few occasions, Hill would mention a court case she had first explained a few pages back, forcing me to flip backwards to refresh my memory. (To be honest, this is one of the few flaws I can pull out of this book.)
Though it brings together plenty of history and legal decisions, Believing is not a dense or legalistic tome. Its just-over-300-pages are straightforwardly written. In fact, over and over again, the book blows your hair back with its blunt assertions about the problem of misogyny in America.
On fixes that haven’t worked: “Insisting that survivors and victims can control bad behavior by standing up to their abusers, telling them that their problems will be solved if they report into processes that are stacked against them, and pledging to get rid of a few bad apples are all forms of denial, none of which have been effective solutions.”
On the implications of Tara Reade’s now-largely-forgotten assault allegation against Joe Biden in the 2020 election: “Reade’s options for filing a complaint in 1993, when she says the attack occurred, were limited,” Hill writes. “Without a reliable and trustworthy system for reporting claims of sexual assault against men in powerful positions, the public is left to figure out the truth on its own.”
On Donald Trump’s election, as well as the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings: “It wasn’t that politicians didn’t care about violence against women; it was that ending gender-based violence mattered less than other political ambitions, like enlarging the party base and beating [Hillary] Clinton.”
Any given reader may easily disagree with any number of Hill’s trenchant observations. On the other hand, there’s no mush here. You might not agree with Hill that gender-based violence is as pervasive as she says. But then, you also leave the book thinking that few others could make the case as sharply as she does.
It’s not a book with many newsy tidbits, though there is a darkly charming anecdote about Joe Biden’s promise to apologize to her for the Thomas hearings, and the time she spent waiting for that apology: “For more than a year, as other journalists asked Biden whether he had reached out to me, [my husband] Chuck and I played a game,” she writes. “Each time the doorbell rang unexpectedly at our home in Massachusetts, we would race each other to be the first to ask, ‘Could that be Joe Biden coming to apologize in person?'”
But here, as in the rest of the book, Hill is on point. She tells the tale of eventually receiving Biden’s apology, and then promptly zooms out to again see the bigger picture.
While Biden acknowledged that the hearing was hard on her, she writes, “He never mentioned what the country went through with the hearing. … I’m not the only one who suffered from the hearing that Biden chaired in 1991. I daresay millions agonized as they viewed it.”
In short, Hill is restating a version of her central thesis: that no instance of sexual harassment exists in a vacuum; that instances of oppression are bigger than the individual participants.
And, indirectly, it’s a reminder that the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings are not hermetically sealed off, existing in The Past. Several of the people involved — Thomas, Biden, multiple other senators from that time — are still around, still in powerful positions. The effects of the harassment she alleged, she seems to say, spanned not just across the country but across time.
You could forgive Hill if she threw up her hands in frustration. But she ends the book optimistically — and characteristically straightforwardly. “We can end gender violence,” she says in the last lines of the book, “and we all can play a role in that achievement.” It might still feel like trying to boil the ocean, but you get the sense that few people are as primed to lead the effort.
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