It has been two decades since Anita Hill testified at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ Senate confirmation hearing. The 20th anniversary of the Hill/Thomas hearing served as a catalyst for a celebration of feminism and a discussion of the continuing impact of power and gender in the workplace that was attended by 2,000 people.
At ‘Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later’; a forum hosted by Hunter College in New York City, Hill reaffirmed her pride in her contribution to the hearings. Hill told Saturday’s audience that she realized soon after, that she would have to compartmentalize the event in order to move forward with her life. “It was an important event. It has helped to shape my life. But it is just an event…it’s not who I am.”
Hill’s name is still politically charged. Her story continues to be synonymous with sexual harassment in the work place. Sex, Power and Speaking Truth, was actually a follow up to a 1992 symposium, which took place in the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony.
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In October of 1991, a sexualized episode of political theater played out in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the world via television. The initial Judiciary Committee hearing for then, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had concluded. After media reports surfaced which accused Thomas of sexual harassment, the committee was forced to hold a second set of hearings.
Anita Hill, at the time, was a 35-year-old law professor at the University of Oklahoma; told the committee that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked as his special assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Education. The all white, and all male senate committee was lead by Vice President Joe Biden, who was a U.S Senator from Delaware at the time. Hill was forced to provide an explicit account of the harassment, which included describing pornography.
According to Melissa Harris-Perry, a panelist at the conference, the treatment that Anita Hill received during her testimony showed that respectability does not protect women from abuse.
“One of the traps we fall into in our politics is to assume that if we straighten up and get a good degree and a good job, that we can protect ourselves from race and gender inequality,” said Harris-Perry, a professor at Tulane University and author of Sister Citizen: Shame Stereotypes and Black Women in America. “Those ugly gender bias stereotypes don’t exist because we perform them, they exist because they do political work.”
On, October 15, 1991 Thomas was confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the U.S Supreme Court by a vote 52 to 48. He remains on the bench today and is by any measure the Supreme Court’s most conservative justice. He has voted to strike down central aspects of the Voting Rights Act; he does not believe that teenagers have free speech rights.
When Thomas’ image appeared on a large screen during the conferences opening ceremony several people in the predominantly female audience hissed. Over 20 speakers, including Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, took to the stage to discuss the intertwined issues of law, politics, race and gender. The conference also included commentary from women that grew up in ‘No means No’ 90’s culture, who credited Hill for inspiring their own activism.
“I really view Anita Hill as one of the trail blazers, even though the situation isn’t perfect now there are more people who report sexual harassment,” stated Jamia Wilson, Vice President of Programs at the Women’s Media Center. Wilson, 31, spoke during a panel entitled ‘Witnesses’.
Surrounded by figures like attorney Charles Ogletree who provided legal counsel to Anita Hill during the hearings. Wilson discussed her childhood observations of the proceedings. “He was confirmed…The win was that there were people like me who were touched and driven to act.”
Volunteers at the conference wore T-shirts, which stated, “I believe Anita Hill!”, a reference to the fact that members of the U.S Senate publicly accused Hill of perjury. Opinion polls taken after Hill’s testimony indicated that 70 percent of Americans thought Hill lied during her testimony.
“Seven out of ten people that I saw at the grocery store thought I had perjured myself,” said Hill on Saturday, when she was asked to reflect on everyday life following her testimony.
Throughout the day panelists drew comparison between Hill’s experience and the public’s initial reaction to Nafissatou Diallo. Diallo, the hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund of sexual assault in May of this year.
Though, in the end, the Manhattan District Attorney dropped all charges against Strauss-Kahn. The initial reaction to Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was respect and credibility, versus the skepticism and vitriol that was bestowed upon Hill.
Anita Hill’s professional background and contributions to the legal field extend beyond sexual harassment. Hill has written extensively on education policy, commercial and contract law. She is currently a professor at Brandeis University and is the author of two books including the recently released Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home.
When asked how she would advise a young woman entering today’s work place in light of her experiences Hill said that everyone should know and understand their strengths while simultaneously seeking out challenges. “Find things that you are challenged by, set goals… go out and try to achieve [them] in your own life and in your own way.”