Sunday, September 23, 2018

On Anita Hill

My time at university was split down the middle by the news of the Montréal Massacre, and the subsequent years were plagued with fears of the Scarborough rapist. We proactively organized walking groups to move around on and off campus, started a "No Means No" campaign, and then, at one point, I rejected the sense of preemptive imprisonment created by my own fear, and I walked to a bar alone just to prove that I could. I came home to my boyfriend on my couch with the phone on his lap, white knuckled. These assaults weren't just terrifying to women.

Leslie Mahaffy went missing from a street near her home in broad daylight a couple weeks after I graduated.

It was just a few months later, in the fall of my first year of teaching at my current high school, when Anita Hill was being called to testify about her experiences working with Clarence Thomas, about the repeated sexual harassment she endured from him. A group of strong-willed students in my school, young women and men passionate about gender issues, wanted to start a gender equity club, and I was right on board to facilitate.

Perhaps naively so.

Having spent the previous five years openly debating the most controversial issues in the classroom and writing op eds in the school paper and the local paper regularly, it hadn't occurred to be cautious and to temper my enthusiasm for equity issues for a high school audience. I almost wrote controversial issues, but surely there's nothing controversial about sexual harassment and assault being a problem, right?

Our club paid rapt attention to the hearing that fall and then determined to bring awareness to these issues potentially faced by students in our own school. We decided on an awareness campaign and put up posters around the halls with definitions, legal rights legislation information, and Canadian sexual assault and harassment statistics.

And then I found out that teachers are not supposed to talk about things like that. I didn't respond to the accusations of "assaulting young minds" that came my way during the following staff meeting. I sat stunned silent, baffled that this form of education could possibly be inappropriate in a school setting of young adults, or that the information was "disgusting" as one colleague insisted.

I think a better word for it, one that nobody used, was "upsetting." It was upsetting to people to be confronted with the concerns that hide just beneath the surface of many students. Those students in the club and I believed that the best tactic to deal with it all was to make it overt, make it clear, and make it known that it's wrong. Isn't it more upsetting to know it's a reality yet do nothing?

I didn't recognize that I had crossed a line with my colleagues maybe because I was fresh from a humanities degree, or maybe it was because I was closer in age to my charges than the staff at the time. I was in grade 9 less than a decade previously, and I remember happening on information by pure chance. A friend's mother had given her a pamphlet on sexual assault. I was hungry for tips on dealing with creepy strangers and handsy distant relatives. The only real advice we got was to put your finger down your throat and throw up on perverts, but do we do that if they just brush by us too closely? We needed specifics! Harassment is complicated, and we needed more guidance

Anita Hill brought into focus the unwanted sexual innuendo that plagued our social lives, that made it feel reasonable to complain about the behaviours we encountered far too regularly. Articles and whole books were written about sexual harassment. The headlines in the news felt a little vindicating after being told the topic wasn't allowed in the halls.

Then that spring of my first year, Kristen French went missing.

The Kavanaugh case has opened up all these issues again, and made it painfully clear how little has changed in the past 27 years. Anita Hill recently wrote,
"It’s impossible to miss the parallels between the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing of 2018 and the 1991 confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas. . . . That the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing suggests that the committee has learned little from the Thomas hearing, much less the more recent #MeToo movement. . . . But, as Judge Kavanaugh stands to gain the lifetime privilege of serving on the country’s highest court, he has the burden of persuasion. And that is only fair. In 1991, the phrase “they just don’t get it” became a popular way of describing senators’ reaction to sexual violence. With years of hindsight, mounds of evidence of the prevalence and harm that sexual violence causes individuals and our institutions, as well as a Senate with more women than ever, 'not getting it' isn’t an option for our elected representatives. In 2018, our senators must get it right."
Recently it was suggest to me, by someone I actually admire, unfortunately, that women claim they were assaulted by rich men in order to get some money, and we can't just believe everybody. I can't quite understand how that's still an openly expressed opinion when Christine Blasey Ford is receiving death threats.

As Maureen Dowd wrote,
"It has been almost exactly 27 years since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, and we are still defensively explaining — including to our troglodyte president — why women do not always tell the authorities about verbal and physical sexual assaults, why they bury episodes or try to maneuver past them. We are still watching a bookish university professor from the West, who tried to anonymously report an alleged blight on the character of a man about to ascend to a lifetime of power, get smeared as a demanding, mixed-up, uptight, loony fantasist. . . . We haven’t forgotten our history. But we still seem doomed to repeat it."
By the end of my second year of teaching, our little club made the attention of the local news, and I found out the article was syndicated when my brother in B.C. called to say I was on the front page of the paper there. I've run similar clubs since, and I've been more seriously chastised for so much less. The fact that I'm afraid to even discuss the specifics speaks volumes. I still have problems with that line, and I've lost my warrior zeal for it all.
(I'm in the middle, with the 80s hair.)
In that first club, we had some conversations, that didn't make the article, about calling it the Gender Equity Club rather than the Equality, a more accurate representation of our concerns. But whatever. Trudeau is starting off the first ever Gender Equality week today. The theme this year (we have themes!), more or less, is that it's better for everyone if we're all treated with respect. Let's hope this week gives us something to celebrate.