Women's Testimony and the Language of Accusation

The year is 1991.

A woman in a teal pantsuit raises her right hand and swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to an all-white male jury. She spends the next three days testifying about the sexual harassment she faced at the hands of the newest Supreme Court nominee: Judge Clarence Thomas.

The year is 2018.

A woman in a blue blazer raises her right hand and swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a jury that contains only four women. She spends the next four hours testifying about the sexual assault she faced at the hands of the newest Supreme Court nominee: Brett Kavanaugh. Sitting in the audience is the woman from twenty-seven years earlier, who silently watches history repeat itself as Christine Blassey Ford delivers her opening statement through tears.

The similarities between the two women are astonishing: Anita Hill was a law professor at Oklahoma University when she gave her testimony while Christine Blasey Ford is a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University. Both women faced the task of discrediting their attackers, who dismissed their accusations as slander. Both received death threats. Both found themselves at the center of a national conversation.  

The similarities and differences of both cases can be analyzed as a reaction to recent changes in how society views assault allegations. When Anita Hill watched  Clarence Thomas get sworn in, she didn’t witness massive protests at the Capitol. She returned to her life as a professor. Twenty-seven years later, public outrage over Kavanaugh's election could be easily be seen on any news site; the protests during his swearing-in ceremony continued well into the night. With the growing prominence of movements like MeToo and Time’s Up, it seems natural that more outrage would be present in 2018 than in 1991 when these allegations were still far and few due to the negative stigma associated with accusations. However, the question remains: how much has really changed? Despite the fact that people have been given a platform to share their stories of assault, the politicization of prominent cases has caused the focus to shift to the credibility of the witness instead of compassion.

On October 10, 2017, the New Yorker published the first in a series of articles that brought numerous allegations of rape, assault, and harassment against film executive Harvey Weinstein. A year later, this series is used by many to mark the beginning of a new era in the way society talks about assault. Shortly after the Weinstein story broke, actress Alyssa Milano urged people on Twitter to use the hashtag #Me Too when discussing their own stories of assault and harassment. Stories from all industries began to pour in: from elites in Hollywood to business executives in the Silicon Valley.

As these accusations began to gain more media attention, more individuals felt comfortable with sharing their own stories of assault. This created a space in which people, especially women, felt like telling their stories would not be met with immediate skepticism and critique. It seemed like the days of “what were you wearing” and “she was asking for it” were finally over. Instead, skepticism, the overwhelming amount of media attention meant that women found themselves surrounded by allies who were willing to help them receive justice and demanding societal change. However, when it came to actually carry out justice, a new problem emerged: how can you prove the validity of these accusations?

Society has decided that in order for accusers to receive justice, they must be able to provide objective proof that does not take into account an individual's personal account of the accusation. When Anita Hill first testified in 1991, her accusation was met with rampant skepticism. The first reports of her accusation were quickly dismissed with questions about why she had not come forward sooner or why no one else had witnessed Thomas’ harassment.  More importantly, the 1991 hearing started with an opening statement by Clarence Thomas, who quickly dismissed her accusation, stating that with no evidence, that Hill’s accusation was merely political slander.

At this time, sexual harassment in the workplace was not a common topic of conversation, and no standard had been set for how courts would deal with such an accusation. Instead, Hill faced three days of unrelenting questioning, as an all-white male panel of judges asked her to repeat her the graphic details of her harassment over and over again. Senators attempted to discredit her accusations by finding minor inconsistencies of her testimony and questioning how they could verify any of her claims. Years later, the focus has become about finding a way to prove accusations in a way that cannot be refuted. 

When Christine Blassey Ford took the stand, her testimony had clearly been geared to prevent the same ruthless questioning that Hill had faced in 1991. Instead, Ford focused on how she could prove that her accusation was objective by using her scientific background instead of focusing on the actual case of assault. As a psychology professor, Ford was able to explain the psychological process that has allowed her to remember the assault from when she was a teenager. Ford explained how certain structures in the brain are able to store memories, and how because of these processes, she will never be able to forget the assault.

As someone who holds P.H.D in the field of psychology, this is how Ford supported her credibility as a witness. Many pointed out that it seemed unfair that Ford had to use her doctorate degree in order to prove herself to be a credible witness. However, despite Ford’s attempts to objectively verify her story, critics still demanded more evidence to validate her accusation. Even with a Ph.D., Ford was still dismissed, made to look like a woman who was falsely accusing a man in a feeble attempt to ruin his life.

Furthermore, when the burden to prove objective credibility is placed solely on the accuser, the media tends to ignore the visceral nature of assault. In both Ford and Hill’s testimony, the women were not only asked to repeat their stories of assault and harassment multiple times but also the details of their experience were then used to mock and taunt both women, as easy jokes. This constant cycle of public harassment made it so that Ford could not return to her home in Palo Alto after the trial concluded; she was forced to relocate in order to get away from the torment.  Furthermore, the media attention around both cases largely ignored the witnesses’ actual story. In Ford’s case, the media created a sports-like commentary for the actual confirmation process, detailing which Senators were voting to confirm the Kavanaugh as a result of her testimony. Her story of assault became shrouded in scientific language and became a vehicle for people to talk about our current political climate and the rise of the right wing.

The lack of justice in both Ford and Hill’s cases, combined with the shift in conversation away from their individual stories reveals that there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to how society deals with accusations. Anita Hill and Christine Blassey Ford’s accusations did not prevent their accusers from achieving a higher status in society; they were forced to watch as their abusers were sworn into one of the most powerful positions a person can hold in the United States. They are now part of a chapter in history that will not focus on their stories, but rather, how their accusations have shaped the political and social climate for years to come. Even with the rise of movements that encourage people to speak out and share their stories, it seems like when cases garner more and more attention, justice and progress gets harder and harder to reach.  

On the surface, the future of how accusations are dealt with appears hopeful. However, there is still a lot of work that society must do in order to change our perception of accusations. It seems like the only way forward is to create a dialogue that takes looks to validate accusation without requiring accusers to have to single-handedly prove their stories. Furthermore, we must understand the emotional and mental toll that public hearings take on an individual and recognize how constant media coverage reduces accusers to puppets of a larger political game. Progress takes time, and hopefully, Christine Blassey Ford and Anita Hill will never have to sit in the audience of another Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and watch history repeat itself.