I had the opportunity last night to speak to over 100 Howard University undergraduate women about the challenges black women face in the 21st Century workplace.

I thought this opportunity to be particularly interesting in light of the controversy once again surrounding Professor Anita Hill, Justice Clarence Thomas, and now his wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas.

These young women had no clue what these three people once meant in our socio-political-cultural discourse back in 1991. Yes, they had all heard something about the lone black Supreme Court Justice’s wife going rogue by leaving some law professor a voicemail, but that was about it. They truly had no clue and no context for what those of us who were over 35 and speaking to them were trying to impart about the issues we as black women have faced in the workplace and those that we still face even in a 21st century “post-racial” world.

Of course, these young women would be totally disconnected from the events of twenty years ago. It makes perfect sense to me, as many of them were just being born or at best learning how to walk and speak their first words in the fall of 1991. For me, and my thirteen black classmates at Washington & Lee University, School of Law in Lexington, Virginia, however, our first semester of law school is one we will never forget.

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That semester was marred by the public specter of two accomplished black professionals, one man and one woman, sitting in the hallowed halls of the United States Senate for all the world to see, being questioned by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, then Senator Joe Biden, Senator Arlen Specter, and a cast of others who delved into the unthinkable on a national stage. It was the most stunning thing I have ever witnessed on live television.

What I remember most about the hearings was the way in which Anita Hill was vilified as at best a “woman scorned” as Senator Howell Heflin suggested in his deep Alabama accent, or as Utah Senator Orin Hatch tried to suggest that she was possessed by something akin to The Exorcist for testifying under oath that then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had made unwanted sexual advances and made crude comments to her.

It was surreal when I look back because I was but 23-years-old, and excited to be a law student at a prestigious law school, and to see this accomplished black female lawyer vilified as a lying, bitter, scorned woman picking on a nice black man married to a white woman was just jaw dropping. But the worst of it, was how we as black female law students were treated. Professors would stop and say, “You going to grow up and be like that?” Racial epithets were left on our study carrels, and worse. I chronicled this all a few years after I transferred from W&L and finished legal training in my very first Washington Post outlook piece, titled, “A Black Law Students’ First Trials”. I will never forget it as long as I live.
But what was more surreal, was in 1998 when I was working as an Investigative Counsel on the House Government Reform & Oversight Committee, I had occasion to be a guest on C-Span, and we were talking about affirmative action and politics. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was watching that day and called the office on the following Monday and asked that I come to meet him for coffee in his chambers. At first I thought it was a joke. And when I realized it was real, I did not want to go. But, I did because my mother made clear to me that you do not tell a Supreme Court Justice that you refuse to come and meet with him. I am glad I went.

I ended up having a great 60-minute plus meeting with the Justice in his chambers, and found him to be a very likable and decent man. But, I must admit I left his office that day wondering — did he do those things he was accused of by Ms. Hill — or was the truth somewhere in the middle between this classic case of he said/she said? Shortly after meeting the Justice I had occasion to meet his wife Virginia, through the Heritage Foundation and Independent Women’s Forum. I always found her a bit distant, strange and extremely conservative. I always felt she was uneasy with black women after the Anita Hill fiasco. Apparently she still is by way of her voicemail.

I have no explanation for the bizarre voice mail Virginia Thomas left for Anita Hill last week. If you ask me, it was a cry for help. Mrs. Thomas clearly has some unresolved forgiveness issues not just with Ms. Hill but in her heart and perhaps in her marriage to Justice Thomas. I hope she works that out, and soon. As for Hill, I believe she told the truth then, and I believe it now . She would have to have been a true mad woman, to make up such stories on a man who she admired and worked for.

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As for Mr. Justice Thomas, I consider him a friend, despite not agreeing with much of his world view. I feel sorry for him that this has all resurfaced because I know it was very ugly for him too. All of that aside, however, the question remains as one young woman asked me last night: “Is there still sexual harassment in the workplace, what does it look like, and if it happens to you particularly as a black woman, how do you address the offense.” I gave her a very long pause and I sighed and I told her “yes” sexual harassment still exists. “Yes” it still affects women’s career progression and retention. But when it came to telling her what to do about it — I was not sure.

Funny, me a lawyer, not sure about how to handle a violation of law. I was not sure because I am old enough to remember Anita Hill and all they did to her, and I have now lived long enough to have endured the same kind of harassment and made the choice to keep silent about it lest I ruin my career and reputation.

In the final analysis, we have to be open and honest with our daughters, nieces, and protégés if we are to protect them from the realities of this life. Yes, sexual harassment is still an issue in the 21st century workplace, the question is will we empower women to speak up and out about it as did Anita Hill 19 years ago, or do we tell them to remain silent for fear that the certain retribution and destruction that follows may shatter all of their career dreams.

I think that is a discussion America needs to have once again. Our daughters are worth it!