posted 2011-11-11 14:37:25

Iconic Figure in Women's Rights Discusses 20th year Anniversary of Landmark Testimony

Conference at Hunter College engages discussion on sexual harassment, Anita Hill's testimonies, and the future

Jenady Garshofsky

Editor in Chief


Left to right: Jennifer Raab and Anita Hill
A conference was held at the General Assembly Hall of Hunter's North Building Oct. 15 commemorating the 20th anniversary of Anita Hill's legendary testimony at Clarence Thomas's senate confirmation hearings regarding his history of sexual harassment, which inspired a generation of women to follow in Hill's footsteps and speak out for their rights as women and as human beings.

The conference served as a reminder to women of the progress that they have made in the in the work place in the past 20 years, but emphasized that there is still a long way to go and that women need to continue to fight to create a safer place for future generations.  The sold-out conference, titled Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later, was an all-day event featuring esteemed professors, authors and activists and ending with the performance “Speaking Truth to Power.” Seventy organizations cosponsored the event including the ACLU, the American Association of University Women and the White House Project.

The conference opened with a 7 minute edited version of the feature film “ Sex and Justice” in which it focuses on the trial where Anita Hill gave her testimony. In the testimony that Anita Hill gave at the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings on October 11, 1991, Hill stated: “I would have been more comfortable to remain silent. I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent”.

The symposium highlighted the legacy of Hill and the impact her testimony had in creating legal boundaries pertaining to sexual harassment, but also highlighted the disparity between race and gender that still exists today. The conference had three panels: “Witnesses,” “Responders,” and “What have we learned in 20 years and what comes next.”  Hill also gave a keynote speech.

Charles Olgletree, a Harvard Law Professor and Hill's lawyer at the time of the hearings, spoke during the conference's first panel applauding Hill's achievements. “I want to salute Anita Hill for speaking to power in 1991. What she stood for in 1991 still resonates to all of us,” he said. “She is in this class with Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Hilary Clinton, and my grandmother. Anita Hill stood up in 1991 so we all can stand up in 2011”

Catherine Mackinnon, a professor of Law at the University of Michigan, specializes in sex equality issues under international and constitutional law and founded the legal basis for sexual harassment in the late '70s. She discussed how it was because of Hill's testimonies that the legal precedents for sexual harassment were set.

“Anita Hill's testimonies were about spiritual transference of finding voice and gaining ground,” MacKinnon said. “Women saw not that she won but that she was taken seriously. African women have come to know that they have rights before the courts and lawyers knew so.”

According to a report from the American Association of University Woman published in 2006, more than 60% of college students experience sexual harassment. The ACLU offers advice, tips and protection for women who are sexually harassed. These programs have aided in efforts to eradicate sexual harassment from the lives of women in the work and school place, but Jamia Wilson of Women's Media Center, said “it's often demoralizing that we still have a long way to go.”

“Anita Hill made it possible to speak up and not be an attention seeker, race traitor,” Wilson said, speaking of the trauma that Hill faced in dealing with Thomas and her bravery in speaking out about it, “ I am not Anita Hill, but I could be, and that scares the crap out of me.”

“Thanks to you, Anita, we and our daughters and our granddaughters now feel empowered to press the emergency button and report offensive behavior,” said Letty Cottin Porgrebin, co-chair of the conference, reading from a speech she had published in The Nation. “Thanks to your brave, frank testimony and your stately comportment in the face of hostile interrogation and vilification, we no longer laugh off unwanted sexual advances.”

While Hill remains a legacy for standing up in the courts against Clarence Thomas, Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University and a member of the conference organizing committee, said that there is much more to Hill than only her testimonies.

Hill graduated from Yale Law School in 1980. Hill was the first tenured African American woman at the University of Oklahoma, College of Law. Currently, Hill is the senior advisor to the provost and she is a professor of Social Policy, Law and Women's Studies at Brandeis University. Hill has recently published the book Remaining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home.

“It did not take Clarence Thomas to make Hill a pioneer,” Williams said.

When asked what she wanted to be remembered for, and what her legacy meant to her, Hill responded softly, “I keep saying you don't decide your own legacy, people decide for you. If I can help people find their voice, than I'm happy. It would be an honor to know people are speaking out against injustice.”