Judith L. Herman M.D.

Decoding Trauma

Justice (for) Anita Hill

Making things right for the law professor who exposed sexual harassment.

Posted Jun 21, 2019

Some years ago, I conducted a study in which I asked survivors of sexual and domestic violence to imagine what justice would look like if their wishes were taken into account. My informants wished first of all for public acknowledgement of both the facts and the harm done to them. They also wished for the community to denounce the crime, so that the burden of shame would be lifted from their shoulders and placed on the offender where it belonged.  

My informants were conflicted about apology. On the one hand, they agreed that a sincere, remorseful apology, in which the offender took full responsibility for his actions, would be a wonderful gift, but they recognized that this was unlikely to happen. What they emphatically did not want to hear was the passive-voiced “politician’s apology,” i.e. “I’m sorry if any one was offended.”  (Judith Herman, “Justice from the Victim’s Perspective,” Violence Against Women 2005; 11:571-602.)

I thought of this recently as Joe Biden announced his candidacy for president and was quickly called upon to apologize for his mistreatment of Anita Hill. In 1991, Mr. Biden was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Ms. Hill came forward to testify that Clarence Thomas, the nominee for the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her. Ms. Hill has said that she held Mr. Biden personally responsible for allowing the hearings to devolve into a media circus in which her credibility was on trial and Mr. Thomas was famously able to claim that he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching.” 

In particular, Ms. Hill said that Mr. Biden had allowed plenty of time for his fellow senators, all white males, to indulge in baseless accusations against her, but had refused to allow testimony from two other women who came forward to report that Mr. Thomas had harassed them as well. As a result, 70 percent of the public thought Ms. Hill was lying, and Mr. Thomas was confirmed.

Seven years later, in an open letter to the Judiciary Committee, Ms. Hill wrote: “Neither the issue of harassment nor the nomination was served by a presumption of my untruthfulness or a process skewed in favor of whoever was able and willing to engage in the dirtiest political ‘gamesmanship.’ Anything less than a balanced approach condemns women to second-class status and the Court to members who abuse power and authority granted to them in a public trust.” (Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power, 1998.  New York: Anchor Books.)

Yet Mr. Biden disclaimed responsibility for the conduct of the hearings and said that he felt he had no reason to apologize personally to Ms. Hill. The best he could come up with was “regret for how she had been treated,” the classic politician’s apology. That would not do, said Ms. Hill: she argued that Mr. Biden owed a full apology not only to her, but also to her elderly parents, who did not deserve to see their daughter publicly shamed, to the two other women who had offered to testify at considerable personal risk, and finally to women in general. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ms. Hill added, “Let me just say that 27, almost 28 years later, what we want from our leaders is for someone to step up and say ‘What happened in 1991…will never happen again.” (New York Times, June 17 2019, p. F4).

This, too, conforms to the survivors’ consensus I found in my study. My informants were not particularly interested in punishment of the offender for his past deeds; rather, they wanted community intervention to prevent the offender from harming others in the future. 

In the case of the Supreme Court, the roster has come to include multiple accused sexual offenders, first in the confirmation of Mr. Thomas, and then again most recently in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. To redress this imbalance, in my view, legal representatives of survivors ought to be appointed to the Court. And who might be a better representative than Ms. Hill? Accordingly, at the next opportunity, I propose that Ms. Hill be nominated for life tenure as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.