Anita Hill, 20 Years Later Fight to End Sexual Harassment Continues
Hill's testimony changed the conversation about sexual harassment
This weekend marked, the 20th Anniversary of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings which made Anita Hill a household name. To celebrate this pivotal moment in women's history, journalists, activists, artists and others came together for Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later. The one-day conference, which took place at New York's Hunter College, made it all too clear that while we've made great strides in the battle again sexual harassment there is still work that needs to be done.
It is largely true that Anita Hill changed the way we saw sexual harassment in our society. Before Anita Hill women were expected to tolerate that type of behavior for fear of losing their jobs if they ever were brave enough to speak out. Hill's poised testimony before a very hostile, all white and all male Senate Judiciary Committee was truly a defining moment in women's history.
The stand out moments from this weekend’s conference were the candid ones. The ones where it became evident that even in the feminist movement, if you want to give it a title, we are not always lock and step and that's a great thing.
On the second panel of the morning, the panelists disagreed on "Slutwalks" with artist and activist Rha Goddess going as far as calling it “a step back” implying that women may want to be less spectacle and more respectable. Professor Melissa Harris-Perry responded saying that Slutwalk is not a step back and that the idea that if women are just a little more respectable doesn't mean they can avoid being assaulted and attacked for speaking out after the fact. Harris-Perry said “[t]he politics of respectability that gets pushed into conversations about girls and sexuality...we should be careful not to be policing desire or policing self expression...The abuse of Anita Hill by the Senate Judiciary Committee can tell you that your respectability will never ever ever save you.”
Harris-Perry also said of the Anita Hill episode that it gave her an “[u]nderstanding how clearly punished African American women will be if we speak about sex in public even if it’s about victimization around questions of sex.”
I think that is the takeaway. It was never about women being so perfect as to not be attacked. Anita Hill was poised and was still questioned as if she were a conniving women whose accusations of abuse could not be trusted. Many in attendance learned for the first time that additional evidence that would have corroborated Hill’s testimony as well as additional victims of Justice Thomas were prohibited from testifying by chairman and now Vice President Joe Biden. It’s pretty incredible that the majority of Americans do not even know that this evidence existed and was blocked and in doing so allowed Justice Thomas to be narrowly confirmed with a 52-48 vote margin.
Hill who for the past 20 years has lead a very quiet life and continues her work as a law professor now at Brandeis has said of getting over the anger of being so publicly attacked for speaking the truth, “But of course I’m angry. I’m angry with him, I’m angry with the senators—I’m probably less angry than I was 10 years ago, but it’s still there. I think we let go of anger bit by bit. To me, the best way to do that is to think about what my contribution can be, to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people. The larger goal is both gender equality and racial equality, because both racism and sexism contributed to my being victimized. But I don’t want to walk around being angry all the time. It’s not constructive."
A generation of women ought to thank Professor Hill for her bravery, integrity, and her resilience in the face of such hostility and character assassination. Women today know that sexual harassment is wrong and that they too can speak out because of her courage.