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."

Advertisement

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." 

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.

Advertisement

Black-white tensions have splintered the women's movement from the start — from black women's fight to be included in the suffrage campaigns at the start of the 20th century to black women sitting out today's "SlutWalk" protest marches against victim blaming in cases of sexual assault. At the same time, black women have been challenged to choose race over gender or gender over race, depending on with whom they were standing.

For young black women, I wondered, as one conference session was titled, "What Does Anita Hill Mean to You?" Jamia Wilson, 31, vice president of programs at the Women's Media Center, an event co-sponsor, gave a glimpse of that meaning. Wilson, who shared the stage with Guinier and law professors Judith Resnick of Yale and Catharine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan, said that she learned of Anita Hill by watching the infamous hearings on television with her family when she was 11 years old.

"It's something that forever changed who I am today," she said from the podium, describing the anger and passion that led her, as a tween, to proclaim at her parents' dinner party, "I believe Anita Hill, and I'm a feminist!" Rather than Clarence Thomas' claim of a "high-tech lynching," Wilson said, "It was a modern-day witch hunt."

Advertisement

After her presentation, Wilson told me, "I see Anita Hill as a feminist icon: She was one person who experienced what a lot of people experience every day. We were here in '91, and we're still here in 2011 asking the same questions."

The Lessons for a New Generation

Laetitia Donnet, 26, a Hunter College junior studying romance languages, had never heard of Anita Hill until her political science professor suggested that she go to the conference. Her boyfriend, Sam Mbassa, 33, who attended with her, filled in the blanks.

Advertisement

Donnet, daughter of a Haitian mother and Belgian father, grew up in Belgium. "I've never felt discrimination as a woman, but know my mom was in positions of powerlessness," she said. "This helps to understand what challenges lie ahead.  But it also helps me appreciate the steps that women have taken to protect women like me. It's inspiring."

For Nicole Clark, 28, a social worker who was 8 at the time of Hill's testimony, the conference reinforced the importance of having black women speak out as black people and as women. "It's especially difficult in the black community, where brothers and sisters have stood together to fight racism," she said, "but black men need to recognize that we have experiences that transcend race."

And perhaps, for some young women, the meaning of Anita Hill is just becoming clear. Tynisha Foster-Bey, a Hunter junior in women's studies and African-American history, was 3 when the hearings occurred. She didn't have much to say about the conference — a professor had suggested that she go, and she was taking it all in.

Advertisement

When asked if she'd ever experienced harassment, she initially said no. But she added that a young Asian woman at her workplace, a restaurant in Queens, had complained up the chain that a white male supervisor's sexual language, jokes and drawings made her feel uncomfortable. Staffers initially took their boss's side, Foster-Bey said, even though they'd also witnessed the inappropriate jokes. Foster-Bey saw the parallels between her co-worker and Anita Hill.

"She had some fears, but she did it anyway," she said. "And it worked out better for her because he was fired and she's still there." She thought for a moment and added, "I see her as a hero."

Crenshaw described the 20-year milestone as a "torch-passing moment" and urged the audience to link women's equality with racial equality, making it clear that the third wave of feminism was alive and well. It may even have a new hue.

Advertisement

Anita Hill should be pleased.

Editor's note: The video of "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later" can be seen on C-SPAN.

Robin D. Stone is a freelance writer and editor in New York.