It was made at great personal cost, but your brave testimony has had incalculable benefits for the country at large
Mon 1 Oct 2018
Dear Dr Christine Blasey Ford
I am writing to thank you. No matter how harrowing your experience, no matter what the US Senate does in the weeks to come, you have achieved something profound in its power and impact, something that benefits all of us. For there are two arenas in which your words will reverberate – the Senate, and the immeasurably vast realm of public discourse and societal values. Even if your words, like Anita Hill’s, are discounted in the former, they will echo in the latter for a long time to come.
You said at the outset of this ordeal: “I was … wondering whether I would just be jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway, and that I would just be personally annihilated.” Testifying in front of that audience, made up in no small part of hostile, disbelieving supporters of the man you told them assaulted you, may have felt like annihilation. Going into your deepest trauma in front of the nation must have been a harsh ordeal. But you were not annihilated; you were amplified in all senses of the word.
Sexual assault denies a victim her voice, the right to say no and have it mean anything. Your account of his hand clamped over your mouth makes this experience of being silenced a direct assault. A society that then refuses to hear a survivor, that denies her the ability to testify to her own experience, that creates a pervasive hostility that prevents victims from coming forward, erases her and them and us again. But on Thursday you had a voice that rang out across the world, and you used it to defend this country against a man not just unfit to be a judge but antithetical to what a judge should be: honest, reliable, calm, evenhanded, respectful of the rights of others. Your voice may have shaken, but your truth went marching on.
Anita Hill lost by one linear measure: she did not prevent Clarence Thomas from being appointed to a position for which he remains manifestly unfit. But what she did achieve was not merely linear; her impact, like her voice, spread in all directions. She prompted a searching national conversation about sexual harassment that was desperately needed and that had consequences that benefited tens or hundreds of millions of women in this country and will benefit the generations to come as they enter the workplace. She made an adjustment in the unequal distribution of power –not so grand an adjustment that the problem was remedied, but a shift that matters.
She did so by being, like you, a steadfast witness to her own experience. Many in the media and some in the Senate maliciously insisted on treating her – but not Thomas – as a subjective, unreliable, perhaps delusional, perhaps vindictive person, yet she could not be dissuaded by them.
As you must know better than most of us from your profession of psychology, credibility – being considered a person who should be believed – is foundational to one’s standing as a member of a family, of a university, of a workplace, of a society. Anita Hill’s testimony and the Senate response put out in the open how women are stripped of this basic power, right, and equality, or are assumed to be incapable or unworthy of it in the first place.
In the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony, a vast collective conversation about workplace harassment opened up. Those who had not experienced it directly – at least those who were willing to hear – learned how pervasive and insidious it is and why women don’t report it (even recent statistics show how often the consequences for reporting are punitive). Reporting of such harassment increased dramatically, meaning far more targeted women were able to recognize their mistreatment or tried to find remedies.
The seldom remembered Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed “to provide appropriate remedies for intentional discrimination and unlawful harassment in the workplace”, especially when employers use “a particular employment practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”. And the next year the federal election became known as “the year of the woman”, because more women ran for office and won than ever before. The shockwaves of her testimony rippled outward in all directions.