By Donella Meadows
–October 31, 1991–
Professor Anita Hill
University of Oklahoma Law School
Dear Professor Hill,
The fuss has died down and you have gone back to whatever your life is like now. You must be getting thousands of letters, some of them less than polite. I hesitated for awhile about adding to your mail, but I find that, like many Americans, I have been aroused by the events you crystallized in a way I can’t forget. Whatever else you accomplished or meant to accomplish during that difficult week when you were the center of public attention, you were a great teacher. For that I want to express to you my deepest gratitude.
The first lesson you taught me was about my own anger. I didn’t know it was there. I was one of the millions of dormant volcanoes on the issue of sexual harassment who erupted that week, letting up a molten core of hurt and fury that had been held down for years. I was astonished at the force of my own feelings.
My feelings, like yours, like those of the others, came from direct experience, starting with my first job at age 16. Unlike you, I never told a soul. I thought that somehow what happened was my own fault. And I had no doubt, if I had complained, who would get fired. I went on working there. I went on working at every job where I encountered that problem. You explained the reason perfectly: to have quit would have meant letting one man’s lewd behavior make my job decisions for me.
When the Senators didn’t understand that point, that was the moment my rage boiled over. Apparently they thought that the right and proper resolution of the issue would have been for you to end all association with Clarence Thomas. In the Senate debate, in media commentary, all over the nation, the fact that you didn’t do that was labeled an “inconsistency” in your testimony.
Some people still don’t get it. They still can’t see the mote in their own eyes, their unquestioning acceptance of the idea that a man should have such power over a woman that if HE humiliates her, SHE should leave — or shut up and take it. But, believe me, Professor Hill, lots of us did get it. You showed us the extent to which we, the victims of that idea, had accepted it ourselves and had given away our own dignity and freedom.
Another thing you taught me was what to do with my anger. First, keep it specific — don’t direct it at all men when only a few men deserve it. Second, don’t stuff it down. Don’t stay silent. However late, however long after the fact, bring it out. America has a lot of talking to do on this subject, before men and women learn how to work together and to set each other straight, without rancor and without fear, on what their sexual relationships are to be.
Never again will I let sexual harassment go unchallenged, if it happens to me, and especially if, to my knowledge, it happens to a young person just entering the workplace. You’ve given me a great line to use. I can look the offender in the eye and say, “You’d better hope you never get nominated to the Supreme Court!”
Your final lesson to me is the most precious of all. It is about means and ends. After I had spent a week in a rage on your behalf, on my behalf, on behalf of all women who had ever experienced the kind of undeserved, unsubstantiated character assassination the Republican Senators heaped on you, you went back to Oklahoma and held a last press conference.
By that time it was clear that the United States would have a Supreme Court justice who was perhaps a sexual harasser and perjurer, and who was for sure a willing tool of an ugly power play, a judge who had denied believing in nearly every legal opinion of his own career. He had won. You had lost. And you weren’t vengeful. You didn’t say that you had gone through a week of hell for nothing. You were as calm as you had been throughout the process. You said only that you had told the truth and were grateful to have had the opportunity to be heard.
That was a stunning example of the central message of every religion, every spiritual tradition — the hardest message, always, for me to remember. Do your very best and let go of the result. Have the courage to change the things you can and the serenity to accept the things you cannot. Keep truth in the means and let the ends take care of themselves. When you’re up against others who will sacrifice anything to win, don’t descend to their level. Hang on to your own integrity, and pray for them.
Thank you, Professor Hill. I needed to hear that. At a time when every American politician is being told to be dishonest in order to win, the nation needed to hear that, on Capitol Hill, under the spotlights, in prime time. It must have been very difficult for you. It must hurt you to see how many people didn’t listen — to see, for example, how the Democrats are being chastised for not being as low and mean as the Republicans. I just want you to know that some of us did hear you, admired you, and will do our best to live up to your example.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991