Nearly every seat on the main floor of Ohio University’s Templeton Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium, and much of the balcony, was filled on Monday evening for professor and civil-rights advocate Anita Hill’s visit to campus.
Hill is a professor of social policy, law and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University and is the author of several books, but she’s mainly known for her testimony in 1991 during the confirmation hearing of current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
During her speech on Monday, Hill recalled the events of that hearing, drew parallels between the past and recent events – namely the contentious confirmation hearing last year of current Justice Brett Kavanaugh – and encouraged the audience to join her in the fight against sexual violence and sexual harassment.
“Too many people saw what I had experienced as a private, personal matter not worthy of public discussion,” Hill recalled in reference to her testimony that Thomas sexually harassed her. At that time, and well before that, cases of sexual harassment and violence often were seen as personal matters, “something that women must endure,” Hill said. She argued that such cases must be a matter of public discussion.
“I think we are in a new day… I think we are on the verge of change,” Hill said. “...And we cannot let this moment pass without making that change happen.”
Hill reminded the audience that “change does not always follow a straight path,” and told of a speech she gave in the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia. On the outside of the side-door entrance, Hill said there remains a “colored” sign demarking the entrance that was reserved for African-American patrons during the days of segregation in the American South.
“It’s still there,” Hill said of the sign. “....But on that evening, inside the theater... what I saw was a mixed-race audience who came in together through the same door, the front door, and sat together in a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King… a marker of the profound change that this country had gone through.”
Just a few months after Hill’s experience in Charlottesville, white nationalists marched in the city, a demonstration that prompted national media attention and counter-protests from other city residents and anti-hate groups. The white nationalist demonstration also led to the killing of Heather Heyer by a white nationalist who drove his car into a crowd of protesters.
Hill said change swings back and forth, not in a straight line. “I do believe that it moves in the right direction but only if we push it when we need to,” she said.
Throughout history, “abuse deniers have always existed,” Hill said, and so have accounts of abuse. Sexual extortion in the U.S. has been recorded in the narratives of slave women, field workers, factory workers, office workers, immigrant women and domestic women, she noted.
“Critics, deniers and trolls today, despite this history, would have you believe that sexual harassment is an invention of modern feminism,” Hill said. “...That present-day political reaction to a historic problem is a divisive tool that has hampered our progress… (but) It is just a tool. It is a tool to divide us against our own interests.”
Sexual harassment and violence “is not a political issue,” Hill said. “It is an issue of public concern, and given the numbers that we know, I would declare that it is a public crisis issue.”
HILL SPOKE ABOUT THE legal history of sexual harassment in the U.S., stating that despite Title VII, the federal law protecting against sexual harassment, going into effect in 1964, a Redbook Magazine poll a dozen years later revealed that nine out of 10 of its readers had experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.
Title IX protections for college students became law in 1972 but “for the remainder of that decade, colleges gave little attention to combating sexual harassment,” Hill said, noting that the U.S. Department of Education offered “little guidance” for how schools were to address the law.
“Throughout our systems, we were left on our own to navigate the abuses we encountered and many… didn’t even know they had the right to complain. Yet despite all of the denials… all of the silencing that occurred, a few women filed suits anyway. They never gave up hope.”
In 1991, Hill agreed to testify about her experience of sexual harassment by then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, standing on the shaky history of how such cases had been treated in the legal system.
“For me, it was not a personal claim of sexual harassment,” Hill said. “...I was testifying on something that I believed involved the integrity of the Court… The integrity of the court is only as good as the integrity of the individuals who sit on it.”
Despite her testimony, “Thomas was confirmed, and seemingly nothing I said mattered,” Hill said.
Since 1991, there has been a lot of mobilizing by women and men against sexual harassment and sexual violence, particularly in recent years with the #MeToo movement.
Still, in September of 2018, the country faced a moment similar to that of Hill’s testimony in the ’90s, when Christine Blasey Ford testified that Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in the 1980s. Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court in October 2018.
“No one imagined that the Supreme Court confirmation hearing could return so many of us to the pain of that past,” Hill said. “We thought that if we had a do-over, that this time it would turn out right. But no.”
Hill said that she heard from “literally hundreds of people” last October who said they felt betrayed by the government.
“They had not provided a process for us that we deserved,” Hill said. “...When this happens, when the government fails us, we must all be willing to stand up and say that we stand with survivors and we support them.”
Hill also emphasized the need to invite men into the conversation, not just as allies but as survivors as well. “It is not just a women’s issue… (It) affects men directly and indirectly, as it does all genders,” Hill said, adding that there is a need to “allow men to participate in this movement at all levels.”
On the #MeToo movement, Hill said she thinks the mobilization of survivors has “already done its job” by raising awareness.
“No one thing is going to change the culture,” Hill said. “… It’s now up to the rest of us to figure out how we’re going to put into place things that absolutuly must be done to make real… lasting change.”
In response to an audience question after her prepared speech, Hill said that she is “hopeful” that former Vice President and longtime Sen. Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate, “will announce what he plans to do about the problem of gender violence... that he will announce that he has a plan, that he understands it as a public crisis, and that he will put time, money, political clout into making change.” Hill added that she hopes that “every one of the candidates for presidency will do the same.”
She didn’t address criticism against Biden for the way he handled the Clarence Thomas hearing as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at that time, or the allegations of improper touching that several women have raised against Biden in the past week.
Anita Hill’s talk was part of the Kennedy Lecture Series at Ohio University.