Dahlia Lithwick and Gillian Thomas in Slate:
Dahlia: I have to confess that watching Confirmation was as brutalizing as watching the documentary, Anita, was for me two years ago. I interviewed Hill at the time and came away amazed that she is still toiling away on sexual harassment law and still certain that she did the right thing in 1991, despite the fallout for her career and personal life. Like yours, my memories of October 1991 are of being riveted to the TV screen, shaken by the almost preternatural confidence Hill showed under pressure, and my mounting frustration that the men on the Senate Judiciary Committee seemed incapable of understanding what she was talking about, much less supporting her or knowing how to even question her. In Confirmation, Kerry Washington captures that controlled, reluctant, dignified Hill perfectly. There is a whole heck of a lot of Olivia Pope happening here, but what Washington grasps so firmly is that Hill has no emotional margin in which to maneuver—to evince anger, as Thomas does, will destroy her. As Hill told me when I interviewed her about it, “He had a race, and I had a gender.” Reading the account in your book of the Vinson case raised several chilling parallels that presaged the Hill testimony. Can you talk a bit more about the case and all the ways Vinson was a harbinger of things to come?
Gillian: The parallels are really striking. Like Hill, Mechelle Vinson was young, just 19, when she began working as a teller at a bank in Northeast D.C. Like Hill, she is black. And like Hill, Vinson hitched her wagon to the star of an older, accomplished black man—in Vinson’s case, Sidney Taylor, the bank’s branch manager, who was admired in the local community for ascending to the role after starting out as the bank’s janitor. Like Hill, Vinson faced the conundrum: If it’s the boss who’s harassing you, whom do you complain to? And like Hill, after Taylor began harassing her, Vinson didn’t immediately leave. For roughly three years, she stayed, although in her case, it wasn’t just professional blackballing she feared, but violence. According to Vinson, Taylor had threatened both her job and her life. She testified that Taylor raped her roughly 40 to 50 times, in addition to subjecting her to all manner of other physical and verbal harassment. When Vinson did step forward, she faced the same under-the-microscope scrutiny that Hill did later. Witnesses at Vinson’s trial testified about her tight pants, her low-cut blouses, and her discussions about sexual fantasies, all in an effort to show that Taylor’s sexual conduct was not “unwelcome.” Some senators speculated that Hill suffered from erotomania and had scoured The Exorcist for pubic hair jokes ahead of her testimony. (Why those scenarios seemed more plausible than a powerful man saying obscene things to a subordinate is a head-scratcher.) Then there was the senators’ incredulity: Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you leave? As Alan Simpson infamously asked Hill, who followed Thomas from one job to another and kept in touch after they parted ways, “Why, in God’s name, would you ever speak to a man like that for the rest of your life?” That question defines privilege: The idea that you’d never need a professional connection or a paycheck badly enough to swallow your pride and be friendly to your harasser.