Twenty years ago we were enjoying our time at college, taking advantage of all that campus life had to offer. The opportunities were boundless and there was was no doubt that upon graduation we would take the workforce by storm. We were well past the women’s liberation movement and had been reared to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted. Never did we think that because we were women our male, professional counterparts might treat us with anything less than respect. But, for some women that was far from the truth, and in 1991, we all learned a lesson that couldn’t be taught in the classroom.
On October 11, 1991, then 35-year-old, University of Oklahoma law professor, Anita Hill stepped before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings and changed the workplace for women and men forever. Anita Hill said that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while working for him at the Department of Education and, later, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The Thomas-Hill hearings were the catalyst that brought the issues of sexual harassment and women’s rights in the workplace to the public’s attention. Broadcast live on television, we were among the more than 20 million viewers who watched the drama unfold as Anita Hill stood before the all male Committee and told her story. Her testimony was explosive and she exposed a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace that until then, had remained behind boardroom doors.
Hill’s testimony was a part of the confirmation hearings to appoint Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, with one of the narrowest votes in American history of 52 to 48, Thomas was confirmed, and has continued sit on the Supreme Court ever since. But the effects of those hearings had long-term results and set a precedent for ordinary working women everywhere. Now there was a term and definition for what some women were being subjected to in the workplace, but had been too ashamed to discuss. Women no longer had to be silent.
As a direct result of Anita Hill’s testimony, across the country laws prohibiting and punishing sexual harassment were put into place. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, from 1991-1996, sexual harassment cases more than doubled and by 1997, nearly tripled.
The hearings also opened up opportunities for women in politics. In 1991, there were only two female Senators. But following the hearings, nearly a dozen women secured nominations to the Senate and five were elected. Today, seventeen women serve in the U.S. Senate.
And for that all male Senate Judiciary Committee who asked Anita Hill if she was a “scorned woman”? They too felt the effects. The Committee has not been all male since that time.
In the end, Anita Hill possessed the courage to stand up for what she knew to be true, and used her voice to inspire others to do the same. We are grateful to her for helping to forever change the workplace for women and provide us with an environment in which we can continue to find and achieve success. For this, Anita Hill is a Woman You Should Know, and we will not soon forget.
So Where is Anita Hill Today?
For the past 20 years, Ms. Hill has spent the majority of her time out of the spotlight. She has remained focused on her work as a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
We recently had the opportunity to watch an excellent interview with Ms. Hill by Gwen Ifill on PBS where she talks about her new book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home and reflects on the twenty years since the Clarence Thomas hearings.
Anita Hill will be delivering the keynote address at a conference – Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later – tomorrow, Saturday, October 15, 2011 at Hunter College in New York City. She will be joined by prominent scholars, attorneys, journalists and activists speaking on panels throughout the day. They will come together to recall Hill’s ground-breaking testimony of sexual harassment and analyze current cases of the same subject matter.