Anita Hill to return to Columbia for 25th anniversary of historic hearings
The year was 1991 and the Internet had just gone public. Nirvana was bringing grunge music to the masses, the Gulf War was ending and the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas was about to bring the topic of sexual harassment to the forefront in public and political conversation.
Thomas was poised to succeed Thurgood Marshall as associate judge on the United States Supreme Court. Marshall, the first African-American judge to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, was a civil rights leader, well-known for his role in arguing for the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.
His appointment was fraught with controversy when an African-American female attorney was called to testify during his confirmation hearings that Thomas sexually harassed her while she worked for him.
The hearings were nationally televised, and Anita Hill relayed her account of Thomas’ behavior in graphic detail to a Senate judiciary panel entirely composed of white men. Thomas ultimately was appointed to the position in a close 52-48 vote. Hill’s testimony made her a target for public ire and personal attacks, but to some she became a heroic figure.
“Professor Hill has always been someone I admired,” said Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. “To be on such a public stage and talk about things that were undoubtedly uncomfortable would be hard for anyone, but she did it with grace and in the face of public ridicule. The Thomas hearings did a lot for women in leadership because it helped women understand that you have to speak up, even if it may jeopardize your career and livelihood. As a young woman about to start my legal career when the hearings were happening, it gave me a sobering look at what women sometimes face in the workplace and it inspired me to use my voice to speak out against things that are not right, even if it may make me unpopular or uncomfortable.”
The impact of the hearings was far-reaching. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 passed soon after and provided increased protection for victims of workplace sexual harassment. Women’s participation in the political arena increased.
“Hill’s testimony advanced the cause of women’s rights broadly and in general,” said Kit Smith, one of the original organizers of the “I Believe Anita Hill” event in Columbia. “Professional training and employment, opportunities in athletics, participation in our political and civic life began to open up. Her voice brought more recognition to many women’s rights issues because it helped sensitize the cultural environment.”
“The issue of sexual harassment finally became an ‘issue’,” Smith added. “You can’t solve a problem until the problem is recognized and her testimony finally made America sit up and take notice that sexual harassment was real.”
In the aftermath of the hearings, a band of women met in Columbia to discuss how they might seize upon the moment conjured by Hill’s testimony in order to address the pervasive inequalities they felt existed toward women.
“We started getting together and talking about what we could do,” said Eve Stacey, another one of the original event organizers. “What we came up with was a social event, and networking. It started small. It has evolved over the years.”
Two large banners were strung up between trees spanning the entrance sidewalk to Smith’s home to welcome people to the first “I Believe Anita Hill” event as autumn approached in 1991. A table was set up so that people could sign in.
“The number of women who showed up was much more than expected. It was amazing!” Smith said.
Organizers endeavored to create an opportunity for women to come together, share their stories and build a network of mutual support. It has been 25 years since the inaugural gathering, and organizers’ hopes are high that the 25th annual “I Believe Anita Hill” event will continue to exceed expectations. Hill, currently a professor of law, public policy and women’s studies at Brandeis University, is scheduled to be present for this year’s event.
Hill also will be speaking at the University of South Carolina School of Law auditorium during her visit to Columbia.
“We are bringing her here to be the featured speaker at the Adrenée Glover Freeman Lecture,” said Drucilla Barker, sociology and women’s and gender studies professor at USC. “It will be the second time she has visited us.”
Barker says it was a joint effort between members of the university and organizers of the “I Believe Anita Hill” event to get Hill here again. Barker noted Hill has appeared in support of the “I Believe Anita Hill” event in South Carolina multiple times.
Barker also reiterated Hill’s historical importance as the person who brought the issue of sexual harassment to the public “and made people aware that it was not OK at all.” Barker also attributes Hill with highlighting how race and gender work together and how they intersect.
“Thomas was judged according to his race. Hill was really judged according to her gender. Race and gender both worked against her, in this case, to create inequality,” Barker said.
This year’s “I Believe Anita Hill” event is scheduled for 5:30 to 8 p.m. at 701 Whaley. The event is free to attend, and attendance is non-partisan and not limited to women. Organizers say they want to connect people of all ages from all walks of life. Stacey said she would like young people to realize how far things have progressed since the Thomas hearings energized their original efforts and how crucial it is for them to become involved in order to advance issues important to women, like inequality in the workplace and women’s reproductive health.
“Come and bring your friends,” Stacey said. “And hopefully, the conversations continue beyond the event.”