(WOMENSENEWS)–The new report by former ultra-conservative journalist David Brock that he lied about Anita Hill to protect conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a classic case study of how willing the public is to believe falsehoods about a woman.
Brock is the writer who penned damaging articles about the woman who accused Thomas of sexual harassment during the 1991 hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court.
In his new book, “Blinded by the Right” (excerpted in the August issue of Talk magazine), Brock says he repeatedly lied about Hill in an article he wrote in l992 for The American Spectator, a conservative magazine. He expanded the article into the book, “The Real Anita Hill.”
Brock now says he made every effort to “ruin Hill’s credibility” and injected “virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation I had collected on Hill into the vituperative mix.” (A former superstar of the right, Brock has become persona non grata to conservatives since he wrote a sympathetic book about Hillary Clinton. He calls many of his former friends “racist and homophobic.”)
Brock says that he lied to cover up Thomas’s interest in pornography, and adds, “I demonized Democratic senators, their staffs, and Hill’s feminist supporters without ever interviewing any of them.”
Public Bought Image of Hill as “A Little Bit Nutty, A Little Bit Slutty”
Indeed, the attempts to discredit Anita Hill were quite successful at the time, with a majority of Americans choosing not to believe her. Brock described Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”–and that phrase illustrates perfectly why people are so ready to mistrust women in the public arena.
There are two contradictory myths about women that have deep historic roots–probably going back to Adam and Eve. They are “The Myth of Female Strength” and “the Myth of Female Weakness.” In one, a woman is a sniveling, small-brained, hormone-racked creature so filled with anxieties and chemical twitches it seems a miracle she can get out of bed in the morning. (A little bit nutty.) In the other, she’s Wonder Woman and Medusa, wrapped up in one, able to reduce men to irrational behavior, compelling them desert to their senses and turning them into besotted fools. (A little bit slutty.)
And media coverage of Anita Hill bounced from one myth to the other like bumper cars gone mad, to wit:
The Myth of Female Weakness: Alas, poor Anita. Perhaps she was simply a pawn in the scheming designs of those liberal Democrats who wanted to see Clarence Thomas defeated for the Supreme Court. Naive, foolish, willing to be used in the plans of powerful men, she was a silly woman embroiled in something she could not understand. Or perhaps she was simply a prisoner of her hormones.
Judge Thomas’ wife–picking up the lead of the senators–suggested in a People magazine cover piece that Hill was a sad, love-besotted girl, a pathetic creature who fantasized a relationship with a powerful man that had no basis in reality. Poor thing, clucked some of the senate Republicans. Seduced by Democrats or bewitched by her fantasies, she should be an object of pity. Unless … unless she was the embodiment of:
The Myth of Female Strength: Oh, wicked Anita. Perhaps she was a temptress whose pleasure lay in destroying men. In this incarnation, she was, as Republican Sen. Arlen Spector suggested again and again in his prosecutorial tones, the scorned woman. And hell hath no fury… etc., etc. According to Spector, Professor Hill apparently spent her time prowling through old copies of “The Exorcist” looking for obscure references to pubic hairs or doing a little light reading of Oklahoma obscenity cases to come across the porno star “Long Dong Silver.” (Just what a girl from a Baptist family does on her weekends.)
Archetypes of Weak or Wicked Women Embedded in History, Culture
Or maybe she was a pathological liar, like the heroine of the film “Fatal Attraction,” a career woman whose barren life and biological clock led her to terrible dark deeds. Or perhaps she was a steely-eyed Joan of Arc eager to become a feminist martyr.
Both portraits, it turns out, were bizarre caricatures, painted by conservatives (then, including David Brock) hell-bent on protecting their Supreme Court nominee.
It’s not just the right, however, that falls prey to one myth or another. These are archetypes embedded in history and literature. As essayist Vivian Gornick writes, images of women are deeply woven into our culture:
“Woman, the temptress, woman the slut, woman the heartless bitch–luring men eternally towards spiritual death, making them come up against what they most fear and hate in themselves, pulling them down, down into the pit of themselves. Sensuous Circe luring Ulysses onto the rocks of his worst self, sluttish Mildred in “Of Human Bondage” mangling crippled Philip still further, heartless Marlene Dietrich casually destroying the weak, decent professor in “The Blue Angel”–the list is endless and the lesson is always the same.
“Woman herself is not locked in this profound struggle with the self; she is only the catalyst for the man’s struggle with himself. It is never certain that the woman has any self at all. What is certain is that onto woman is projected all that is worst in man’s view of himself, all that is primitive, immature and degrading,” Gornick writes.
And so Monica Lewinsky became, in the initial spin of the Clinton White House, a stalker, preying on poor Bill, and Paula Jones was the slutty, aggressive bit of trailer trash. Remember Elizabeth Ray, who said in the 1970s that Congressman Wayne Hays sexually harassed her? The details of her sex life were spread all across the media. Another woman who accused Congressman John Young of forcing her to come to his office once a week to give him oral sex was branded a liar and a slut–until a number of other women came forward and said they had the same experience.
Idea of Women Getting More Power Scares The Pants Off Some Men
Whatever the complex reasons, there has been a pervasive sense in our culture that women are powerful creatures and the idea of their getting more power scared the pants off some men.
John Adams voiced this fear openly, when his wife Abigail asked him to “remember the ladies” in his revolution. That was exactly what he had no intention of doing. “Depend on it,” he wrote, “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory…in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of master, and rather than give this up, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope that General Washington and all our heroes would fight.”
Those “masculine systems” are still operating in today’s media, and the fear that John Adams voiced openly is woven subtly through news stories and columns about the subject of women and power. Centuries of male fear, suspicion and distrust of women have not vanished from the modern world. But in the 20th century, the old fears are voiced more subtly.
Hillary Clinton, for example, is perhaps the most demonized public woman in America, like Hill alternately accused of being too strong or too weak. She was compared to Glen Close, the murderess in “Fatal Attraction” and to Eva Peron, the wife of the Argentine dictator, “ravenous for power,” and was called “The Wicked Witch of the East.” There are more than 50 references to Hillary Clinton in print as “Lady Macbeth.” On the other hand, when she stood by her man, she was described as a weakling, a “codependent” who actually encouraged his adultery, a traitor to feminism and a fool.
When women are labeled powerful–and especially when they are also viewed as sexual–the words used by the media often have overtones of dread and menace. Anita Hill was a vengeful, revenge-obsessed feminist crusader, determined to bring a man down into the dust. That she seemed the epitome of a cool, self possessed young lawyer from Yale, that she had no visible feminist credentials and was a supporter of the conservative Judge Robert Bork–these facts were simply disregarded.
Will this ever change? Maybe. As more and more women enter the corridors of power, as women are seen less and less as “the other,” if they are viewed as people rather than as archetypes, perhaps they will be less vulnerable to the sort of demonization Brock practiced on Anita Hill. It’s good to hear a practitioner of that particular craft come clean. Perhaps the next time someone accuses a woman of being “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” the American public won’t be so gullible.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.