DesireeWashington
Desiree Washington

“One of the ways in which these dualities affect people’s lives is through the (often unconscious) ideology, imagery, and associations that mediate our perceptions of and relations with each other. Let me provide a concrete, contemporary example here. The fall and winter of 1991-92 brought several dramatic and controversial rape and sexual-harassment cases to the rapt attention of millions of Americans: law professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against then-prospective Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas; Desiree Washington’s acquaintance-rape charges against boxer Mike Tyson; and Patricia Bowman’s acquaintance-rape case against William Kennedy Smith. Each of these cases was a unique historical event requiring its own specific analysis. Public reactions to each were diverse and often divided by race. Nonetheless, I would argue that we can profitably cast a more sweeping glance over all three events, one which reveals the fall and winter of 1991-92 as a cultural moment in which phallocentrism and sexist ideology reared their heads and bared their distinctive teeth in a particular emphatic way.

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Patricia Bowman

Through each of the proceedings, the man accused was endowed–by the lawyers, the senators, the media–with personal and social history, with place and importance in the community. The woman concerned was continually portrayed (as Beauvoir has put it) simply as “the Sex,” as “Woman,” with all the misogynist ideology that attaches to “Woman” when she presents herself as a threat to male security and well-being: she is a vindictive liar, a fantasizer, a scorned neurotic, mentally unbalanced, the engineer of man’s fall. It is true that Desiree Washington, whose lawyers cleverly presented her as a child rather than a woman, generally wriggled out of such projections; but Patricia Bowman, who had the most suspect past of the female “accusers” interrogated before us in that year, had them cast at her continually. Of course, these constructions are frequently overlaid and over-determined, in the case of the African American woman, with Jezebel imagery and other stereotypes specific to racist ideology. The strikingly self-contained and professional Anita Hill, however, largely escaped them. She was not generally portrayed as a lustful animal (that would have been too great a stretch, even for Arlen Specter). But she was continually (contradictorily) portrayed as unbalanced, vindictive, manipulable, deceptive, vengeful, irrational, petulant, hysterical, cold–standard choices in our historical repertoire of misogynist tunes. The governing image suggested by Patricia Williams is not that of Jezebel but that of the Witch:

Everything she touched inverted itself. She was relentlessly ambitious yet “clinically” reserved, consciously lying while fantasizing truth. Lie detectors broke down and the ashes of “impossible truth” spewed forth from her mouth. She was controlled yet irrational, naive yet knowing, prim yet vengeful–a cool, hot-headed, rational hysteric.

The Thomas/Hill hearing proved, to the contrary, that there are contexts in which it is useful to generalize about the limitations of male perspective and the commonalities of women’s experiences. “They just don’t get it.” I no longer remember who first uttered these words, but it was quickly picked up by the media as a crystallization and symbol of the growing perception among women that few men seemed to understand the ethical seriousness of sexual harassment or its humiliating and often paralyzing dynamics. There were men who “got it,” of course. “Not getting it” does not come written on the Y chromosome, nor does it issue from distinctly male cognitive or personality defect. Rather, it is blindness created by acceptance of and identification with the position and privileges (and insecurities) of being male in a patriarchal culture. (I say “acceptance of” and “identification with” rather than “enjoyment of,” because those who aspire to, who crave, the male privileges that have been historically denied them can also be blind.) Men who struggle against the limitations of perspective conferred by male position, privilege, and insecurity–who, to borrow Maria Lugones’s terms, attempt to “travel” emphatically to the “worlds” of female experience–come to see things very differently. 

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Anita Hill

While acknowledging the mediation of race and class perspective–not to mention party politics–in the Senate committee’s questioning of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, would any of us want to deny that the limitations of the exclusively male experience helped to shape the discourse of the hearings? Those limitations were even more evident among Thomas’s detractors than among his supporters, for his detractors had an interest in representing Hill’s perspective sympathetically and yet were largely inept in their efforts to do so. They never asked the right questions, and they generally seemed unconvinced by their own pontifications about the seriousness of sexual harassment. In the wake of this spectacle, the media–and thence “the nation”–suddenly woke up to the fact that (evident to feminists all along) that the U.S. Senate was virtually an all-male club. The 1992 election brought four new female senators (one of them African American) to Congress. They have not shied away from talking about the importance of bringing “women’s perspectives” to their positions, and thus to the different senatorial “culture” they hope to create.

Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (Pp. 234-240, from the section, “The Place of Duality in a Plural Universe,” pp. 233-243.)

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