Anita Hill speaks of sexual harassment, issues still relevant today

Anita Hill spoke at the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris lecture series in Oakland about sexual harassment at the workplace. Photo by Annabell Brockhues

Anita Hill spoke at the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris lecture series in Oakland about sexual harassment at the workplace. Photo by Annabell Brockhues

On Saturday evening, it did not take much to make the crowd at the Marriott City Hotel in downtown Oakland cheer. “We are here to hear the truth!” announced Gloria Crowell, the emcee and executive director of the Allen Temple Health and Social Services Ministry, introducing the evening’s speaker as the crowd cheered: Anita Hill.

Twenty seven years after she famously testified against Clarence Thomas, then a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, accusing him of workplace sexual harassment, people still remember Hill and came to support her. One hour before the official start of the event, the West Hall at the hotel was already half full. A woman at the registration desk estimated that 1,100 to 1,500 people called to RSVP before the event, which was part of the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris lecture series, sponsored by Oakland’s member in the US House of Representative and a past mayor.

Indistinct chatter about the hearing and Hill’s testimony hovered above the crowd. “I just had to come and hear her talk,” said Candice Francis, communications director for the ACLU Northern California, who was one of Hill’s supporters back then and is still today. As so many others in this room had, Francis followed the hearing on television. “What happened to her was so unfair,” said Francis. People back then showed their solidarity through t-shirts and buttons that read: “I believe Anita Hill.” Francis had that bumper sticker herself, she recalled.

Joanne Below from Berkeley recalled the 1991 hearing, as well: “I thought she was saying the truth.” Below recalled how badly Hill was treated by the public, “but she still held dignity around it,” she said.

Monique Lynch, who wasn’t born until a few years after Hill’s testimony, said she had just read about Hill in her business ethics class at Cal State East Bay. “I am interested in what she has been through and wanted to see what she has to say on the #MeToo movement,” Lynch said.

In 1981, after graduating from Yale Law School, Hill started to work for Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education. One year later, she followed him to the Equal Employment Community Commission (EEOC), an agency that oversees compliance with laws protecting American worker’s civil rights.

In 1991, then-president George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Hill was summoned as a witness to testify about his work behavior. In her testimony, Hill alleged that during their time at the Department of Education, Thomas would use work meetings to talk about sexual topics. “After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes,” she testified before the Senate.

Furthermore, Hill testified, “On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.” She said that the sexual conversations stopped temporarily, but began again after she had followed him to the EEOC. In 1983, Hill testified, she decided to leave, as working with Thomas stressed her out. She went on teach at Oral Roberts University.

Thomas denied Hill’s claims, and the Senate committee concluded that Hill had misinterpreted Thomas’ actions. Thomas was voted onto the Supreme Court for a lifetime.

Hill was criticized and mocked by many for her testimony. But for those who believed her, Hill became a hero for challenging a powerful figure and speaking out against workplace sexual harassment. And in light of the #MeToo and “Time’s up” movement, she is now speaking publicly again about what she experienced in 1991.

On Saturday, Hill appeared on the stage in front of a dark red velvet curtain, framed by two big screens, which showed her in a close-up. At least six film cameras in the hall were directed at her. The crowd gave her a standing ovation before she even spoke a word.

Hill started her speech with the concept of “home” and the feeling of being safe: “Being at home, feeling at home, is the key to justice and equality in the 21st Century,” she said. But since, she said, sexual abusers are “protected on the front pages,” Hill questioned whether “we are truly safe here, if we belong here.”

Hill said she was expected to speak about her own experiences at the hearings in 1991, and on Saturday, she criticized the senators for refusing the truth and instead focusing on their own set of “alternative facts.” “Their message was clear: Women who came forward are vicious – or crazy,” Hill said. She said she would do it again, to stand up for something she truly believed in. “I saw a nominee who had put himself above a law he has sworn to protect,” she said.

Hill said she does not only want to talk about gender violence, but about its racial elements in this country. Hill said that early workplace sexual harassment complaints in the 1960s and 1970 were mostly filed by African-American women. Many of the cases were dismissed as private and personal matters. As a result of these dismissals, she said “No wonder women went to work, knowing they will be put up with this problem, and did not speak up.” Hill honored all the women who filed formal complaints before she did: “I know I stand on the shoulders of those women, as do the women today in the #MeToo movement.”

It may seem that like nothing has really changed since Hill first accused Thomas of sexual harassment—after all, the public voted in a president who was caught on tape talking about inappropriately grabbing women. But indeed, some things have changed. The year after Hill’s testimony, four women were elected to the Senate—the highest number back then. In addition, the EEOC and the Fair Employment Practice Agency (FEPA) saw an increase in women filing formal complaints of sexual harassment. In 1991, only 6,883 complaints had been filed. The next year, it was already 10,532. For 2017, the EEOC alone counted 26,978 charges.

“We are conflicted,” Hill said of these two very different pictures of the 21st Century. “But it is a new day.”

In the end, Hill said, she didn’t came to Oakland to speak about her experience, but about Martin Luther King Junior’s network of mutuality. “Violence to any of us is a threat to every one of us,” she said. Hill said she came to emphasize that sexual harassment is not normal just because it is prevalent, and that opposing sexual assault should be stronger than any friendship. “And if the government that you have elected does not care what you have experienced,” she said, “you are not part of the community.”

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