I have a story to tell about the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the US, but it appears I need to work up to it. So, I’m going to tell you about Anita Hill and me. My story took place at the same time as the events that made her famous, but for me the action happened along the Mississippi River Delta near the Gulf of Mexico, at place called Avondale Shipyards. Very few people know my story.
This story is going to have some factual information in it that might make you uncomfortable. It should. If you recall Anita Hill’s testimony during the nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas, rest assured, it gets worse. This may be triggering for some people. It is for me.
Anita Hill and I are close in age, and both of us grew up in Oklahoma, about 3 hours apart. Small world. I learned who she was in 1991, along with pretty much everyone else in the country. When President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court of these occasionally United States, Ms. Hill realized she had information that she had to reveal. She accused Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace. Resisting and denying his frequent sexual advances wasn’t all she did. Not only did she reveal the ridiculous, famous Thomas comment, “Who put a pubic hair on my Coke can?”, but she described how Thomas, on the job as the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), discussed his own sexual prowess, described his sex organs, and commented about “such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.”
The public and the leaders in government acted surprised and, predictably, blamed Hill for this information. (The Kavanaugh hearings demonstrated that nothing has changed.) But the thing is, that was not at all unusual. In fact, it was the norm. It was the norm in the early 80s when it happened. It was the norm in the early 90s when she spoke up. If it’s less of a norm in 2020 it’s hard for me to tell because this is a crime that is quite often perpetuated against young women. I’m no longer young. It’s no longer fun to shock me, I guess. There are laws against it now, but there were laws against it then, they just weren’t enforced. The future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was in a mighty convenient place as head of the EEOC.
I was a draftsman at the time. I drew mechanical, plumbing, and electronic drawings in engineering and construction firms. My family moved to New Orleans when I was a young teenager. I must have been about 21 when I went to work at Avondale. It was a well-paying job, therefore dominated by men. This was before computers, so all of our drawing was done by hand with old school mechanical pencils, vellum, and long drawing boards. I was the only woman I ever knew at Avondale. I heard there was a female secretary somewhere, but I never met her. I was about 21 and these old Cajun boys. I don’t know. I don’t know.
I hadn’t been on the job long when I went into the bathroom and there was a small hole in the wall above the toilet. When I came out this one guy told me, “You need to keep that hole plugged up in the bathroom.”
“Just always keep it plugged up,” he said. “Just trust me.” Even at that age I knew what it meant. I realized that I had already been spied on while using the bathroom.
Soon afterwards I went in the bathroom, and a magazine centerfold was opened on top of the toilet, a close-up of a woman’s ready-to-go genitals. It was intended for me. I was a 21-year-old girl, and I was pretty. They wanted me to know I was on their turf.
There were multiple times when I came in and a dildo… a deluxe version… was poking out of my book shelf, rotating around. I confiscated it and threw it in the dumpster. The room erupted in laughter as I strode out of the room with it.
I contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to discuss the harassment issues with them. Yes, the same EEOC headed up by Clarence Thomas at the time. Of course I was in southern Louisiana, and he was in Oklahoma, but indirectly he was in charge of what happened to me. Imagine me putting all this together in my mind in the early 90s as Anita Hill’s story came out. The EEOC guy I spoke to told me to start documenting everything. I think he actually wanted to help.
I got a stalker, too. Back then creeps would call young women and do heavy breathing on the phone. We didn’t have cell phones, so we couldn’t just block them. You had to answer your phone because if it was important, people you needed to hear from couldn’t leave a message. Your social life revolved around the phone, too. The stalker told me his name was Billy and that he worked at Avondale. I didn’t know anyone named Billy, but I assumed it the alias of someone in my office. When I called to report this to the phone company on the advice of my mother who worked there, the manager I talked to said, “That happens to my daughters all the time. Just hang up on them. There’s nothing we can do.” But, see, “Billy” knew where I lived. He knew when I was home. He knew when my room mate was home. He knew which rooms of our duplex we were in just before he called. When we called the Police they said there was nothing they could do unless he did something. He had to do something bad and we had to be able to prove it. They weren’t going to help.
When our apartment was broken into, my roommate and I were told that there was nothing they could do. We had quite a few things stolen. My guitar that I had scrimped and saved for, an heirloom ring of my roomie’s aunt, our stereo, our TV. We didn’t have much. What we had of any value was taken. The Police did absolutely nothing to try to help. The single cop that came out just took our report and left. I don’t know if this was related or not.
My roommate’s boyfriend gave her a gun because I was being stalked and nobody else would do anything.
My employer, Avondale Shipyards, was a major ship builder, and built such ships as the infamous Exxon Valdez, the one with the massive oil spill in Alaska in 1989. I started working there while they were still working on the Valdez, and I did a small amount of drawing on it. (The spill involved a drunken captain running the ship aground, not the work done by the shipyard).
British Petroleum hired Avondale to build a ship for them while I was there. The guy in charge of the contract came over from England sometimes. One day he was there, and I was working at my desk. He and my boss, Andy, stood beside my desk just watching me. The British guy, whose name I don’t recall, said to Andy in full voice, “So, you have your own office whore!” He was standing three feet away from me. Andy shuffled and laughed. I just sat there with my face burning. It’s not exactly something I had planned a speech for.
A couple of days later, Andy called me into his office. He showed me my EEOC documentation. He had rummaged through my desk drawers and found it; I had naively forgotten to take it home. My desk was locked, but of course, my boss had the right to go through my stuff if it was in my desk at work. He had duplicates of everyone’s desk keys. He shouted at me in his thick Cajun accent. “That man is your bread and butter! He pays your bills!” He said, “I can’t believe you would throw us under the bus like this! If you value your job, this is the end of it!”
I was unable to get those documents back from Andy. I recreated them and kept turning them in to the EEOC, far more careful now. I even met with an EEOC lawyer once in person. I was moved to a different office at Avondale, doing the same work but with different guys. I became good friends with a former New Orleans Saints football player named Michael Williams. He was 6’-7” and weighed over 300 pounds of solid muscle. I hung out with him. Nobody bothered me as long as I worked in that office. One time Burger King had tiny drafting kits as their kid’s meal toy. One day I came into the office and he was leaning over his drafting board with his giant hands using those tiny templates to draw. So funny. Mike was a good guy. His brother was Wes Chandler, a famous player at the time, but I’d pick Mike any day.
I encountered office harassment later on in my career, too. By the time I got to NASA I was hardened and a lot less willing to put up with things. I wasn’t the only woman there (although one of only a few), and I had friends there, so I had back-up I didn’t have when I worked at Avondale.
In more recent years I was told by a former boss that I was too nice at work. That’s funny. They didn’t know me when I had to be harsh. They didn’t know me when I had to stand up and shout at a guy who started rubbing my shoulders at my desk. I basically growled, “Don’t you ever touch me again.” He said he didn’t know I was such a bitch.
They didn’t know me when I was having my car repaired and my car window wouldn’t roll up even after they worked on them. The guy told me, “Well, I guess they hadn’t seen you or they would have been able to get it up.” When I told him I was offended he told me I couldn’t take a joke. I demanded to speak to his boss, who had to restrain a giggle while I told him what happened. I wrote to the President of the dealership, and ultimately the President of General Motors. Of course they didn’t do anything. I didn’t like who I had to be then, but I really can’t imagine how I would have survived had I been any other way.
I’ve worked really hard to become a nicer person who can be vulnerable. I like me better now. But the fact is, women often have to be bitches.
From hearing from my nieces and younger friends, I know the world is still a dangerous and uncomfortable place for young women. It was a harbinger of no-change-to-come when Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice for life in 1991, and in 2016 Donald Trump was elected President of these once United States, and a little while later when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018. At the Republican National Convention in 2020 they invited Abby Johnson to speak. She said that only the husband in the family should vote, confirming that women’s rights are not a priority for a lot of people, even now.
I am glad to see women taking more positions of authority but I’m broken in my soul that there are still so many women today that would give all of our hard-earned rights away. I’m discouraged that when Joe Biden called Anita Hill last year to apologize for his role in the Clarence Thomas hearings twenty-eight years ago she was unable to hear any contrition in what he said.
We must vote for Biden, not as the lesser of the two evils, but as the only viable opportunity to save our country. It’s a successive approximation, not an end game.
But then we need to get back to work.
Canor, C. A. (1991). Thomas’s record at the EEOC. Washington Post.
Gardner, A. (2020). Abby Johnson, Anti-Abortion Activist, Thinks Only the Husband in a Household Should Vote. Retrieved 8/29/20. https://www.glamour.com/story/anti-abortion-activist-abby-johnson-voices-support-for-head-of-household-voting Glamour Magazine.
Office of Response and Restoration (2014) Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Retrieved 8/29/20. https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/exxon-valdez-oil-spill
Pruitt, S. (2018). How Anita Hill’s Testimony Made America Cringe – and Change. https://www.history.com/news/anita-hill-confirmation-hearings-impact History.com.
Shipco v. Avondale Shipyards (1986). Civ. A. Nos. 82-5650 and 83-2494, 84-4361. Retrieved 8/29/20. https://www.leagle.com/decision/19861754631fsupp112311601 Civ. A. Nos. 82-5650 and 83-2494, 84-4361.
Stolberg, S.G, Hulse, C. (2019). Joe Biden Expresses Regret to Anita Hill, but She Says ‘I’m Sorry’ Is Not Enough. Retrieved 8/29/20. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/politics/joe-biden-anita-hill.html New York Times.
Trautwein, C. (2019). Inside the Kavanaugh Hearings: An Oral History. Retrieved 8-29-20. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/supreme-court-kavanaugh-collins-flake-heitkamp-blasey-ford/ PBS.
Welch, W. M. (1991) Thomas presided over shift in policy at EEOC, Records Show. Associated Press.