Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill Conference Held at Hunter College

| Oct 31, 2011 | Discrimination & Harassment, Sexual Harassment & Gender Discrimination |

On October 15, 2011, twenty years after Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, Hunter College held a conference with over 1,000 attendees honoring Anita Hill’s courage during the confirmation hearings. The conference was co-hosted by Outten & Golden’s own Kathleen Peratis and activist Letty Pogrebin. The inspiration for the conference arose, Professor Hill revealed, in part by a phone message just months earlier from Clarence Thomas’s wife asking Professor Hill to apologize to Clarence Thomas for her testimony. After that call made national news, the public outcry demonstrated how strongly people still felt about the hearings today-a fact that the packed audience at Hunter College confirmed to be true. Remarkably, the audience consisted of men and women of all ages and races. It was a true testament that Anita Hill’s legacy has and continues to impact generations of civil rights advocates.

The conference was divided into several sections, beginning with “Witnesses,” who discussed what happened, and “Responders,” who described what Anita Hill meant to them. Luminaries such as Gloria Steinem, Catherine MacKinnon, and Charles Ogletree took the stage at this day-long event to discuss the issues of race and gender that the hearings invoked. Lani Guinier identified the false dichotomy presented to women of color, when they were asked to choose sides between Hill and Thomas: “Are you black, or are you a woman?”

The afternoon session consisted of scholars and activists who reflected on what we had learned in the twenty years since the hearings and what comes next. In a moving presentation, Kimberlé Crenshaw recalled the outrage of black women upon reading Orlando Patterson’s NY Times editorial during the hearings. Patterson had argued that, even if everything Hill said about Thomas’s actions were true, it would still not constitute sexual harassment– after all, a black man speaking to a black woman that way was socially and culturally acceptable. Crenshaw and other black feminists ran an advertisement in the Times in response, explaining that sexual coercion and violence has been a large part of how black women experience racism and insisting that no one speak on their behalf to say what they find acceptable treatment in the workplace.

Patricia Williams introduced Hill for her mid-day keynote and described Hill’s iconic blue dress, which to her framed the question, “what does credibility look like?” So many women face this dilemma, she observed, of wondering how they have to dress, act, or appear in order to be believed. Ms. Hill herself recounted the abuse, harassment, and threats she received following the hearings. She recalled yearning for the day that she would “get her life back.” As it turned out, however, that day never came. Instead, she went on to produce outstanding scholarship on issues of race, gender, and the law, including her most recent publication, “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home.”

Nor was the country ever the same after the Clarence Thomas hearings. Complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace quadrupled, and the public suddenly had a context to discuss this pervasive problem. By taking a public stand, Anita Hill shed light on a subject that had been invisible for so long while motivating others to do the same.

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