Photo: Jenny Warburg Photography

Anita Hill stood onstage and waited for the standing ovation to end. It took awhile: Hunter College’s auditorium was crammed with women, ages 15 to 75.

Some were the same age that Hill was in 1991, when she came forward to testify in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Others had been at her side, or among the millions watching the young law professor talk about unwanted sexual advances by her former supervisor. And still others had been too young to hear her then, but came to honor and learn from a pioneer for justice.Asked by Harvard professor Patricia Williams, “When did you realize this was a moment beyond just the moment?” Hill talked about her last appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee: “At the end of my testimony, [civil rights attorney] John Frank came up to me in tears, saying, “I know this is hard, but you have no idea how important this is to our country.”

The conversation between Hill and Williams came during the conference “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later,” presented at Hunter College on October 15. The point made by John Frank was demonstrated by the day’s four panels, which discussed in turn the events of 1991, its s effects on the law, and the challenges to come. Along the way, many saluted two other women, both of them  African Americans, who preceded Hill in exposing workplace sexual harassment: Paulette Barnes, who brought the first civil suit against her supervisor at the EPA in 1974, and Mechelle Vinson, whose case against Mentor Savings finally removed such employer behavior from the realm of “personal matters” and into the jurisdiction of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

However, commented University of Michigan professor Catherine MacKinnon (right), such harassment was still sotto voce until those 1991 hearings.

Only then did it become real to the American public, MacKinnon said as the conference began. “My book in 1979 [Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Yale University Press] didn’t do that. The 1981 EEOC guidelines didn’t do it,” MacKinnon explained. “But Anita Hill did it. After the hearings, sexual harassment complaints across the nation tripled. And even years after, women believed her with ferocity, and continued to do so after time and heat passed.”

They still do, said Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the event’s co-chair. Women flooded email boxes across the country last year when Justice Thomas’ wife Ginni demanded an apology from Hill after all these years. “We realized it wasn’t really over,” Cottin Pogrebin said.

In 1991, Tulane University’s Melissa Harris-Perry (left) was  just beginning  her sophomore year at Wake Forest University. Harris had just organized a residential community for black women, called Nia House, she said, so when the hearings began, “we were all watching together.” At the time, Harris-Perry added, “I also had to contend with the fact that my dear mentor, Maya Angelou, had just written a piece hoping that Clarence Thomas, who had been poor, might be good for our racial politics.”

What happened instead was the subject of much of the day, as panelists examined the complex intersection of race and gender that played out in Thomas’s nomination and succession to the bench.

Harris-Perry was referring to a piece that had been published in the Washington Post in August 1991, before a coalition of law professors of color persuaded Hill to testify. After she did,Thomas famously told the Senate Judiciary Committee that allowing her testimony amounted to “a high-tech lynching.”

The day Thomas made that statement, said Kimberle Crenshaw of Columbia University Law School, she left the Capitol and was “surrounded by African-American women praying. They were praying for an end to this threat to Thomas being named a Justice—the  threat coming from Anita Hill! And our taxi driver, an African immigrant, nearly drove off the road gesturing about Hill’s betrayal of ‘our community.’”

The resulting split of constituencies was a minefield for opponents of the Thomas nomination, said Judith Resnik of Yale Law School. “Confidence was all about counting the votes,” Resnik said. “And we were not given enough time to educate Senators abou the issue.”

Since ascending to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas’s impact has been keenly felt—most recently in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, said Hunter linguistics professor Virginia Vallian. “Just as in 1991 the Senate did not understand the realities for women in the workplace,” she said, “in 2011 the Court didn’t get the effects of rampant discrimination, how it actually manifests.”

The recent case of Nassifatou Diallo, whose charges against IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn stunned three countries, showed both the achievement and limitations of that wake-up call, panelists agreed.

Diallo benefited in one way from the sea change in attitudes since 1991: she knew what had happened to her was illegal. “It is because of  Anita Hill’s example that a hotel worker knew that she had rights… and both have won in the court of public opinion,”  said Gloria Steinem. “Clarence Thomas is on the Court, but Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be president of France.”

Diallo “spoke for so many women in workplaces around the country,” said Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which works on behalf of the two million women who work as nannies ad caregivers. “The case being dropped says we have so much more work to do.”

Ideas about what to do next varied. Younger women talked of current harassment and the need for intergenerational strategies, others of educating men. Gloria Steinem proposed a new legal category, parallel to hate crimes. These “supremacy crimes,” Steinem said, would include sexual harassment, domestic violence, and “so-called senseless killings by men who go into a school or a restaurant or other public place,” like the recent massacre in Norway—whose offenders, “exclusively male and usually white, act out against challenges to their supremacy.”

Dr. Hill’s own suggestions involve a redefinition of ‘home,’ as she outlines in her new book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. Why ‘home,’ Williams asked. Hill cited Ken Burns, who has often said that he sees ‘home’ as a metaphor for equality. Hill extended the metaphor, describing ‘home’ as “a lens through which we can safely view the world.” That could mean safety from poverty, discrimination, or from trauma, as well as representing a physical home, she said. “Home is an ideal state of being, as much as a reality, which must be reimagined for each generation.”

In the book, Hill proposes a “Home Summit” for women and girls to shape the next stage of the battle. She leaned forward, toward the audience. “Can anyone take this to the White House Council on Women and Girls?”

These are just a few of the highlights of a powerful day. To hear more, go to the conference’s Web site . And let us know (in the comments below) if you’ve had an Anita Hill moment yourself, and what you think is most important to remember over the next 20 years.

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  • L Thomas November 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    The same time Anita Hill was going through her hearings, I suffered a considerable amount of similar adverse treatment at work and I didn’t know what to do. Because of Anita Hill I learned it was against the law what they were doing to me. I documented everything and filed a complaint with the EEOC and every single person who has made me suffer got what was coming to them. Thank you, Anita Hill, for saving me.

  • Judith A.Ross November 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Thank you for this vivid reminder of what true courage looks like.

  • RozWarren November 2, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Anita Hill is one of my heroes. Thanks for this great report!