I Believe Anita HillOctober 19, 2011
“Are you a scorned woman?”
Sen. Howell Heflin (D-AL) asked Anita Hill this question in October 1991. The moment was replayed in the documentary Sex and Justice. This was one of many outrageous questions he and other senators asked Hill during the Senate confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas to determine the possible motivation for her “telling falsehoods” about her experiences of sexual harassment at his hands.
The film was shown at the start of the conference Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later, which I attended on Saturday at Hunter College in New York City. The film set the context for the rest of the day, and it made me better appreciate just how brave Hill was to speak her truth in the face of blatant hostility and disbelief from some of the most powerful people in the country.
Following the film, the 2,000 attendees — feminists, womanists, and Hill supporters — heard what happened 20 years ago from key players, including Hill’s lead counsel Charles Ogletree and Lani Guinier, one of her advisors.
Throughout the day, we heard from scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia J. Williams, and Catharine MacKinnon, who placed the hearings in context and discussed how it brought attention to the intersectionality of race and gender. Activists like Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Rha Goddess of Move the Crowd, and Jamia Wilson of the Women’s Media Center spoke about the legacy Hill’s testimony has on their work.
During the lunch break, on behalf of AAUW I co-hosted a discussion with Girls for Gender Equity on the topic of sexual harassment in schools and on the streets. Several AAUW of New York members were among the 35 attendees. Despite being in a noisy cafeteria, we had interesting conversations about the motivation for harassment and victim-blaming, and we came up with suggestions for action.
Hill spoke after lunch, and she received a standing ovation as she took the stage. She graciously thanked friends, family, and supporters and said she never would have made it through without their help. I was saddened to learn that after the hearing, people sent death threats, petitions for her to lose her job as a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and excrement through the mail.
In many ways, the hearing was a turning point in her life, but it did not monopolize her interests. She just authored a book called Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home and spoke to us about the housing crisis, especially its impact on women of color.
After a full day of feminist history, high emotions, and inspiration, I was honored to briefly meet Hill at an evening reception. Despite the long and surely tiring day, she was gracious, kind, and thoughtful in her interactions with all of her admirers.
Before I left, I purchased an I Believe Anita Hill T-shirt, a nod to the phrase on buttons that her supporters wore 20 years ago. Unlike Heflin, I do believe she told the truth, just as I believe other survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault who speak out.