On October 11, 1991, 35 year-old Professor Anita Hill appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. During Professor Hill’s testimony, she proclaimed, “It 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 Hill-Thomas hearings launched an emotionally-charged public debate on race and gender and catapulted the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the public dialogue.
Although there was some blatant opposition from civil rights groups including the NAACP on the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, there was also a strong belief by some in the African American community that Professor Hill and her allegations (true or not) would stand in the way of ensuring that an African American man would continue serving on the country’s highest court.
Harvard Law School professor, Lani Guiner, reflected on a call Professor Hill received during the Senate hearing at the Anita Hill, 20 Years Later: Sex, Power and Speaking Truth conference in New York earlier this month. The caller asked Professor Hill, “Are you Black or are you a woman?” It was clear that a very visible and decisive line had been drawn and Professor Hill had to choose a side.
The notion that Professor Hill had to separate her race from her gender began a debate on the interconnectedness of racism and sexism. The Hill-Thomas hearings played out in full color on every American television dispelling the misperception that racism and sexism occur in a vacuum. Sitting in front of nine Senators (all of whom were white men), Professor Hill gave voice to women across the nation. Her words planted a seed of political activism that simultaneously reenergized the gender equity movement and gave place to the inclusion of race in the public discourse. For example, scholars Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith co-edited a book entitled, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies where they chronicled the national mobilization of African American women who were raising their collective voice against sexist and racist behavior in the workplace. This movement became known as African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.
Once something that was silently tolerated in offices across the county; workplace sexual harassment following the Hill-Thomas hearings found increased public awareness. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, the reporting of sexual harassment cases more than doubled from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996.
A year after the Hill-Thomas hearings, the 1992 election was dubbed the “Year of the Woman”. A record number of women ran for public office and won. In the U.S. Senate alone, 11 women ran and five won seats – including Carol Moseley Braun who became the first and only African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Twenty years ago, Professor Hill gave voice to countless women, illustrating that winning isn’t always the end goal. Often, it is the simple act of speaking out against injustice that serves as a catalyst in laying the foundation to redefine what gender equity is for all women, regardless of race.