This month marks the 20th anniversary of Anita Hill's testimony at Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Twenty years ago, in the face of extreme pressure, Professor Hill recounted the ways that Thomas, who had been her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexually harassed her at work by pressuring her for dates, detailing pornographic films, and bragging about his sexual prowess. In spite of witness testimony supporting Hill's assertions, Senator Arlen Specter accused her of "flat-out perjury." Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52-48.
I was three years old when Anita Hill thrust the issue of sexual harassment into the national spotlight, and I've grown up knowing that sexual harassment at work is not just "a fact of life" that I have to "deal with," unlike the experience of my mother and grandmothers. The questions, "Where were you?" and "How were you impacted?" were running themes throughout "Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later," a conference last week that celebrated Anita Hill's contributions to women's rights. Scholars, attorneys, activists, and journalists joined to discuss Hill's bravery in testifying, the intersections between race and gender, Clarence Thomas's jurisprudence, and sexual harassment at work, in school, and on the streets, among many other topics.
Jamia Wilson, Vice President of Programs for the Women's Media Center, summed up one of Hill's key contributions to women today: "Anita Hill made it possible for me and others to speak up."
During her informal keynote discussion, Professor Hill described how issues of gender-race politics complicated her experience as a woman of color, and admitted that during the hearings, despite her brave face, she was afraid. However, she explained, "Every day when I woke up and felt fearful, I knew the thing that was causing me to be fearful — that testimony — was the right thing to do."
Twenty years later, Anita Hill continues to urge women to speak truth to power, yet noted that for many women, even space inside the home is not a safe space. Hill and other panelists, including Gloria Steinem and Catharine MacKinnon, underlined that despite strides in the past two decades, there is still much work to do. Steinem cited troubling military sexual assault statistics: only 13 percent of military sexual assaults are reported, and it is the leading cause of PTSD in servicewomen. (The ACLU Women's Rights Project is addressing this issue in our case, Service Women's Action Network, et al. v. Dept. of Defense, et al.) Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, pointed out that women are still the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
None of this was presented pessimistically, however. Panelists explained that the sheer turnout of the event — over 1,000 people registered — and the powerful women's rights advocates present demonstrated that we will continue to speak up, make a scene, and speak truth to power. We've come a long way since Anita Hill's testimony, and we will continue to push forward despite the obstacles ahead.