What Anita Hill Can Teach Us


If there isn’t a word or phrase for something, does that something exist?

According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration, without warning and without giving reasons, has ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop using certain words in their budget documents and in communications with Congress. The words are “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “vulnerable,” “fetus,” “diversity,” “transgender” and “entitlement.”

The Post reports that CDC staffers were stunned by what they say is an unprecedented act of censorship. Swift condemnation followed from across the science community. For example, here’s part of a joint statement called Reports of Censorship in Federal Budget Document, issued by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the HIV Medicine Association, and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society:

We find this unacceptable and disturbing… When ideology, fear, and ignorance dominate discourse in the public health arena, consequences are deadly. More than three decades ago when HIV first appeared in the U.S., the federal government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the epidemic and to allocate resources allowed the HIV epidemic to expand further and faster…. Timely intervention could have saved many thousands of lives. (Emphasis added.)


The allocation of resources, i.e., government funding, is a crucial determinant of health. As Jack Halberstam, professor of gender studies at Columbia University told Democracy Now, when you prohibit these words in funding requests to Congress:

[I]t has the effect of suppressing the exact kinds of health projects that people might submit that are based [on] and are in relationship to, people of color, queer people, women. Those are the targeted groups in that list. And it’s a very—or not very subtle way of saying, ‘We don’t particularly care about delivering … healthcare to those people.’ (Emphasis added.)


The IDSA charge that the ban constitutes an “unwillingness to acknowledge” a problem or a category of people is a very serious one, especially given our history with AIDS. But there’s another equally serious problem that’s caused by stripping the CDC of critical language – a basic inability to even think about let alone publicly acknowledge, the health issues of vulnerable people.

To understand this induced inability to tackle an issue, take another look at the story that’s front page news across the country: the sexual harassment of women in the workplace. Historically, there was an unwillingness to tackle it. But in the very beginning the issue wasn’t so much unwillingness as it was an inability to tackle it, and that inability was also grounded on what’s happening at the CDC – the lack of critical language.

In 1974, professor Lin Farley ran a Woman and Work class at Cornell University where she unexpectedly discovered that every one of her female students had been forced out of a job or fired because they rejected the sexual advances of a male boss. My God, Farley thought, it can’t be just this group of kids; but sure enough, further study convinced her that across the country women labored in hostile work environments ruled by men.

But Farley had another problem – no one knew what to call this phenomenon. No word or phrase then existed to describe the pathology she was witnessing. So she invented one: “sexual harassment of women on the job,” thereby giving birth to (1) the ability to talk about the subject and raise the consciousness of men and women, and (2) the ability to hold transgressors accountable.

Accountability was the issue on October 11, 1991, when University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill, using the charged language of “sexual harassment,” sought redress not for herself, but for a nation. In a publicly televised senate confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, professor Hill, sitting alone at a table, facing some of the most powerful men in the country, provided painful, detailed, credible testimony of the prolonged sexual harassment she suffered from Thomas, who had been her boss at – of all places – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Though Thomas was eventually confirmed – narrowly, the vote was 52 to 48 – some things began to change. For example, women filed twice as many sexual harassment complaints to the EEOC over the next few years.

But the coming out moment for sexual aggression had to wait until October 5, 2017, when the New York Times, in a groundbreaking report, revealed multiple allegations of sexual harassment against powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein, which led to the resignation of four members of the Weinstein Company’s all-male board, and to Weinstein’s firing – and that was just the beginning.

Innumerable similar allegations have spread far and wide ever since. So much so that Wikipedia has a new entry called the “Weinstein effect,” defined as a global trend in which people come forward to accuse powerful people, mostly men, of sexual misconduct.

And that trend will be publicly adjudicated in the United States by non-other than Brandeis professor of law and social justice, Anita Hill. On December 16 this year professor Hill was appointed to head the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace. It was created by Lucasfilm and the Nike Foundation to tackle widespread sexual abuse and harassment in the media and entertainment industries.

And remember those senate confirmation hearings? They were chaired by then senator Joe Biden who last week, according to Time magazine, finally acknowledged how badly Hill was treated: “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology,” Biden said. “My one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends. I mean, they really went after her.”

So far so good. But imagine something. What if an order came down stripping Hill of some of the critical language she will need to do her work. For example, what if Hill’s funding was conditioned on her not using the words “sexual harassment.” And she was further ordered not to refer to young actresses as “vulnerable,” or say that her findings were in any way “evidence-based.” That, of course, would be absurd, it would be cruel – it would never happen.

But that’s exactly what just happened at the CDC. Where the victims are once again women, plus some of our most vulnerable – transgender people, communities of color, and everyone living with and at higher risk of HIV – and their partners and families.

With the wisdom of being able to look back on it all, Anita Hill says:

People in power are actually the ones who often exhibit the worst behavior. And they’re setting the tone for others in their workplaces that women are not to be valued. That’s the real tragedy.

That’s the reason the CDC story is a tragedy – precisely because the Executive Branch has knowingly increased the number of people who are “not to be valued.”


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