Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the sexual harassment allegations Anita Hill made against current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing. Distinguished speakers, including Hill, who The New York Times credits as “personally responsible for revitalizing feminism,” came to talk to the over 1,000 people in attendance at Hunter’s all-day conference “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth” about the significance of Hill’s testimony.

Anita Hill; Photo: The Washington Post

Patricia J. Williams, a professor at Columbia University and a member of the Conference Organizing Committee, introduced Hill by discussing her anxiety over what to wear and what credibility looks like. Arriving on stage to a standing ovation, Hill first thanked her legal team for their support in spite of the pressures she received from the public (70% of whom thought that she had committed perjury) and from her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma (many of whom urged her to resign). Williams asked Hill about her experience getting her life back after the Hill-Thomas hearing. Hill said, “It was an important event that has helped shape my life, but it is just an event. It’s not me; it is not who I am.”

Hill went on to discuss a variety of social and political issues. When asked to characterize the housing crisis, she stressed the importance of having a conversation about equality without racializing or genderizing. She used the television show The Jeffersons to make her point. When the Jeffersons moved up in life, the mother became a housewife and hired a black maid. Going back to the current housing market, Hill said the media left out the impacts of the housing collapse on women (who, starting in 2005, have been purchasing houses on their own with increasing frequency). Hill spoke about the importance of owning property, especially to her ancestors who used to be slaves. Reading from her book Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home, Hill defines “home” in three ways: “a lens through which one can safely view the world,” “a place where one’s ideas, experiences, and work are seen as valuable,” and “[a place where] one’s body, our physical being and identity are welcome.” She writes, “Home is an ideal state of being and place, reimagined for each generation.” Hill then spoke about her great-grandmother helping her imagine what equality would be like and how the current generation can influence the next generation to create a 21st century vision of equality. Hill ended by saying “We need to hold ourselves accountable […and] make sure every voice is heard.”

Clips of Hill’s testimony, taken from Sex and Justice, a feature length documentary, showed Senator Arlen Spector’s character assassination of Hill and current Vice President Joseph Biden’s calling the hearing short to withhold supporting evidence, which elicited hisses from the audience. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an author and activist and conference co-chair, thanked Hill for her “brave, frank testimony and stately comportment in the face of hostile interrogation and vilification [and] for making a scene — for doing it fearlessly before the eyes of a riveted nation and inspiring millions of women to defend their dignity as [she] did [hers].”

The first session, moderated by Dorothy Samuels, a writer for The New York Times, comprised of speakers who had watched the hearing unfold on television. They recalled the impact Hill had on their personal lives and society. Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, put Hill in the same class of women as Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks. Lani Guiner, also a professor at Harvard, said the hearing was a “culture shifting moment.” Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School, provided three contexts for the hearing: collective social political action, complexity of identity of politics, and a fake hearing where judges also served as lawyers. Catherine MacKinnon, a professor at University of Michigan Law School, called Hill’s testimony  a “spiritual transference of finding voice, gaining heart and standing ground.” She added, “no longer can powerful men, and men are socially powerful, be sure that the sexual abuse they inflict will be covered up, and few things have been the same since.” Jamia Wilson, program director of the Women’s Media Center, recalled her life in Saudi Arabia, where women were not permitted to drive. Wilson said, “Anita Hill made it possible for me and many other women to speak up in spite of being portrayed as an attention-seeking race traitor by some and Jezebel stereotype by others.” The speakers of the first session encouraged women to speak up and emphasized a need for the system to change.

The second session, moderated by Pat Mitchells, President and CEO of The Paley Center for Media, included activists and a professor who responded to the Hill-Thomas hearing. Mitchell acknowledged a difference between “real” women and the way women are portrayed in the media. Joanne N. Smith, executive director of Girls for Gender Equality, said, “Anita Hill gave voice to the experiences our ancestors had and weren’t able to speak about.” Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that Hill not only spoke for immigrant women workers who don’t have legal protection against harassment, but that she also promoted intersectionality, the theory that social and cultural constructions contribute to inequality. Emily May, executive director of Hollaback!, said culture needed to change and move towards the realization that sexual harassment is not acceptable and is not the fault of the woman being harassed. Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor at Tulane University, said that Hill’s testimony changed her ideas about sexual harassment and the dynamics of interracial and intraracial relations. Rha Goddess, founder of Move the Crowd, said Hill’s testimony was “truth for truth’s sake” and discussed how we can speak truth when pushing against injustice. An audience member asked the panel to comment on SlutWalks, marches that protest against the practice of using a woman’s appearance to justify rape. The panel agreed that although the walks’ message is a valid one, SlutWalks are a step back due to the negative connotations of the word “slut.” Another audience member asked about the popularity of contextualized television shows set in the 60s and 70s. Harris-Perry replied that the shows hearkened back to a simpler time for the privileged upper class. The speakers of the second session urged women to understand the complexities, become familiar with intersectionality, and start a dialogue.

The final session, moderated by Kathleen Peratis, lawyer, activist and Conference co-chair, consisted of well-known activists who addressed the next step in equality. Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder of The African American Policy Network, said “It’s not over until we say it’s over, and it ain’t over!” As a developer of intersectionality, she stressed the importance of thinking intersectionally and not allowing the Right Wing to separate blacks and women. Virginia Valian, a professor at Hunter College, talked about the need to educate those involved in policy-making about the issues. Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, credited women of color as the pioneers of feminism and urged us to help each other remember their legacies. Devon Carbado, a professor at UCLA School of Law, said Thomas has helped limit civil rights, and the fight for gender equality should be aligned with racial equality as well. Julie Zeilinger, an editor at FBomb, spoke about how the current generation is in an environment that takes sexual harassment seriously but also finds itself in a place where males feel a sense of entitlement.

The panelists agreed that work has been done to advance civil rights, but it is still not enough. Society must keep working together, regardless of race or gender, and fight for equality for all.

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