More than two decades after her groundbreaking testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about sexual harassment in the workplace, Anita Hill on Friday delivered what she called a long-overdue message to Utah: Thank you.
Hill, the first tenured African-American woman at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law, had just returned to campus after testifying during confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had been her boss in two government agencies. It was a momentous event as the televised hearings triggered public debate about sexual harassment, even as Hill faced harsh criticism and calls for her post to be revoked.
Despite support of friends and family, some days she needed reinforcement, “to know that we were not alone, and this is where you in Utah come in,” Hill said at the YWCA’s 25th annual LeaderLuncheon .
On one such day, a student asked Hill if she had seen that day’s edition of the student newspaper. Inside was a full-page ad with a message signed by 150 Utahns that read: “We, the undersigned citizens of the state of Utah, wish to express our support for the courageous actions of Professor Anita Hill.”
“It was clear and unequivocal,” Hill said. “And to you, I just say thank you from the bottom of my heart and the depths of my soul. ... What do we need in times of struggle and strife? Yes, we need our grit, we need our own determination, we need role models and we need friends and family who love and support us, but we also need the kindness of strangers, and that’s what you were to me.”
It was a pivotal moment in workplace politics as recounted in the documentary “Anita,” which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
And yes, it was worth it, Hill said.
“I have never recanted, and I won’t apologize for telling the truth,” she said.
Hill now is a senior adviser to the provost at Brandeis University and a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies. She has written three books, including “Reimaging Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home” and “Speaking Truth to Power.” She is co-author of “Race, Gender and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings.”
Hill is a sought-after speaker who draws overflow audiences wherever she goes, and Friday’s sold-out luncheon was no exception; more than 1,400 people turned out to hear her speak and hail seven women honored by the YWCA for their contributions to empowering women.
Hill said she did not intend to spark a public debate about sexual harassment, but her testimony allowed women to “find their voices” about the experiences they had long kept secret.
“Women had just had enough, and all they needed was a little bit of knowledge to know that their rights were being violated,” Hill said. “Given that opening, women stepped into the breach and they stepped forward, and they stood up to their harassers.”
Women led efforts to change workplace policies and filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in record numbers; when the claims couldn’t be settled, they went to court, Hill said.
“These stories which we had carried and felt guilty about and ashamed of were now open, and we were able to talk about and relieve ourselves of the burden that our harassers had placed upon us,” Hill said. “That is the cultural and social change that will ultimately move us forward on this issue. The world knows now, and this is important, that when women are given half a chance we will act with courage to enforce our rights.”
But much remains to be done, Hill said.
“We know we are not close to equality, whether it is economic or social and cultural, or political,” she said. “There is no simple formula for getting us to where we need to be.”
Some obstacles are financial; some are communication barriers. And some are cultural, so integrated “in our structures that they are almost like a part of the DNA of our society,” Hill said.
Achieving equality will require continued action on multiple fronts — community engagement and advocacy, litigation and settlement, policy change, Hill said, noting the work of Utah’s YWCA is part of that effort.
“When people ask me if I would do it again, even with all the work there is to be done, I say yes because my mother taught me to believe in the impossible and to work hard and to commit myself to make sure ... that freedom and justice prevail,” Hill said. “I not only believe in my own hard work and integrity, but I do believe even though the moral arc of the universe is long, it does bend toward justice.”
YWCA honors 7 women
The YWCA bestowed six Outstanding Achievement awards and its first-ever Heart & Soul award at the annual LeaderLuncheon on Friday in Salt Lake City. › B2