What Has Been the Impact of Anita Hill?

Twenty years after the Thomas hearings, a conference introduces her legacy to a new generation.

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Twenty years ago Anita Hill, University of Oklahoma law professor and private citizen, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and threw a giant monkey wrench into the well-oiled, old-boys machine that was rubber-stamping Clarence Thomas' confirmation to the Supreme Court. Of course, to the shock and lingering dismay of many (Thurgood Marshall still sits somewhere shaking his head), Thomas was confirmed, but not before Hill's charges that her former boss had made unwelcome lewd comments raised the issues of workplace sexual harassment and women's equality in the public consciousness.

Last Saturday, Hill supporters assembled a multiracial who's-who of some of the nation's brightest legal, scholarly and feminist minds -- including scholars Charles Ogletree and Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School, Melissa Harris-Perry of Tulane University and Kimberlé Crenshaw of the African American Policy Forum. In a daylong conference at Hunter College in New York City, "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later," they explored the fault lines between race and gender equality and reflected on what has changed since Hill's revolutionary testimony -- and what has not. 

One Life Transformed

Hill herself took the stage as keynote speaker, and after an enthusiastic ovation, she shared, in an intimate talk with Columbia University law professor Patricia J. Williams, how profoundly her life was changed by the internationally televised hearings, in which an all-white, all-male panel of senators questioned her integrity and maligned her character and basically treated her like a criminal defendant.

Citing physical threats, psychological pressure and poll numbers showing that seven in 10 Americans believed she had lied, Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University, said, "I wanted my life back ... and I resented the fact that I couldn't get it back." About six months after the October 1991 hearings, she said, she had to let go of that ideal of her life as a private citizen and figure out a different one "so I can continue to do what I do, to be productive ... to continue to live."

What helped keep her on that path? In response to an audience member's question about facing fear, Hill said, "Every day I woke up knowing that the thing that caused me to be fearful -- that testimony -- that was the right thing to do." 

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Hill described her new book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home, as the exploration of a certain concept as central to achieving the American dream: the concept of home as a safe space where women are valued, "an ideal state of being as much as a place which is re-imagined for each generation." Similarly, she said, "we should also imagine a workplace where sexual harassment no longer exists."

Gender or Racial Solidarity?

Speaker after speaker rallied the capacity crowd of 2,000, describing how Hill's testimony prompted an avalanche of sexual harassment complaints, inspired progressive women and men to strengthen anti-harassment measures and challenged assumptions that racial solidarity trumps gender solidarity. (Guinier: "Many of us had to deal with the ambivalence and the ignorance of the question, 'Are you black or are you a woman?' ") I scanned the audience of mostly white, mostly gray (or strategically covered gray) women and noticed a smattering of young black women throughout.

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