While interviewing women leaders for Power in Place (PiP), I’ve asked my subjects to identify role models in their lives. Many answers have been deeply personal, like pointing to one’s grandmother; others have looked up to sports figures, like Billy Jean King; or others revered social justice activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King. As I reflect upon my own journey two years into my project (feeling myself to be a wiser and more confident woman), I regard Professor Anita Hill as my inspiration since she is an unflinching advocate for all women. So I was especially honored to attend her keynote presentation at this year’s sold-out Massachusetts Conference for Women.
Most of us are passive witnesses and reluctant participants in a greater narrative. Others are thrust into history, not necessarily by their own designs. These select few, such as Anita Hill, are presented with great life challenges and because of their strong moral fiber they’re able to meet these obstacles head-on and emerge stronger. As a result, they become our paragons of leadership.
In 1991, Professor Hill was at the center of a very intense, deeply political controversy around the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination. It wasn’t her intention to be the middle of the debate. She was simply doing her duty by honestly answering the questions posed by the vetting committee. Professor Hill clearly recounted the workplace sexual harassment she suffered from her boss, Clarence Thomas. She testified that Thomas created an unsafe, uncomfortable and demeaning work atmosphere. Her allegations seriously questioned the fitness of such a man to be a Supreme Court judge. As she put it during her recent speech to 11,000 women at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, what worried her was “once confirmed Thomas would be sitting in judgment of harassment cases. The matter (of his sexual predation) was not one of my civil rights, but access to equal justice for all was at stake.”
Unfortunately, Washington DC is extremely partisan, so her truth, as she lived it, wasn’t taken at face value. Instead she was subjected to extraordinary scrutiny by the all-male senate judicial committee. In the opinion of many, requiring her to repeatedly describe the verbal sexual humiliations she endured turned the Thomas confirmation hearing into an assessment of her character, not the character of the nominee. As history invariably played out, her testimony was discredited and Thomas was confirmed.
The aftermath of the hearings saw many fallouts. For Anita, she was terrorized by bomb and death threats. Viable packages of harm were delivered to her doorstep. Amidst these declarations of hate, however, thousands of letters from ordinary Americans expressing support were addressed to her. Women came forward and shared their own stories of sexual harassment and brutality. The correspondences were filled with hope, inspiration, and empowerment.
On a national level, women emerged from the shadows of shame and fear. Reported cases of sexual assault and intimidation to the EEOC doubled in just two years. Women took note of the deplorable treatment of Anita in our seat of government. They felt their voices and values weren’t being represented. The year 1992 ushered in the “Year of the Woman.” Record numbers of women ran for political office and won. That election cycle saw the largest percentage of women entering Congress in history.
Even though Anita Hill didn’t necessarily choose this role of being a feminist symbol who holds truth to power, she has inhabited it with boundless energy, grace and long-term dedication. She knows that harassment is not just about sex, but it’s about control and power and the abuse of it. She recognizes the deep connection between sexual misconduct and the wider issue of gender equality. “Harassment is not just some isolated thing. It typically occurs in combination with other forms of harassment, like pay discrimination, like (workplace) assignment disparities, like bias reviews, and when women are passed over for promotion.”
Today, Professor Hill’s advocacy has given a voice to so many vulnerable women who have been dismissed by the main-stream power structure. College women are uniting and challenging university policies in regard to how they react to allegations of sexual harassment and assault. However, noting the recent political climate, she challenged us to remember, “Now is the time for us to draw upon our most courageous selves, so when we look upon a 7th grade class, we can tell them, we did everything we could in our power to end sexual harassment, to end sexual assault, and end gender discrimination in their lifetime, so the next generation does not live through what we and our mothers lived through.” She continued her emphasis: “We must share our stories with daughters and sons. We must raise our voices in our workplaces and we must make our system work for us.”
Thank you, Anita for being an unwavering advocate for all women. We owe you a debt of gratitude for your long-term dedication to women’s rights. Going forward, I will always hold your call to action as a guiding light: “We must raise our voices, just like we did 25 years ago to say ‘enough is enough’” and fight for gender parity during these times of uncertainty.