Anita Hill Speaks of Equality and ‘The Change That We Need’

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Anita Hill reflects on a letter she received in the 1990s from a seventh-grader. In this letter, the author said, “It seemed Clarence Thomas had won. But he didn’t.” Hill emphasizes how it alluded to the media’s portrayal of her testimony. Photo by Camille Carrillo.
Anita Hill reflects on a letter she received in the 1990s from a seventh-grader. In this letter, the author said, “It seemed Clarence Thomas had won. But he didn’t.” Hill emphasizes how it alluded to the media’s portrayal of her testimony. Photo by Camille Carrillo.

A roaring round of applause welcomed to the podium the attorney and professor who put the issue of sexual harassment on the national agenda.

Students, staff and community members lined up hours before Anita Hill’s lecture — “Speaking Truth to Power: Gender and Racial Equality” — on Feb. 26 at UC Santa Cruz’s College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room, filling the room to capacity. Hundreds more who were unable to secure a seat watched a live broadcast from the Humanities Lecture Hall.

The evening began with Chancellor George Blumenthal welcoming the “powerful and towering” feminist studies professor Bettina Aptheker to the stage. Aptheker and literature professor Karen Tei Yamashita share the UC Presidential Co-Chair in Feminist Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, which organized the event.

Feminist studies associate professor Gina Dent introduced Hill as a “woman who many of us feel we know” whose goal is to “encourage creative, equitable and positive resolution of gender, class and race issues.”

The youngest of 13 children, Hill is a Brandeis University professor of law, public policy and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

“The change that we need — the change that we want — is a lifetime amount of work,” Hill said.

Hill is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including the Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship Award (2005), the Louis P. and Evelyn Smith First Amendment Award by the Ford Hall Forum (2008), an honorary degree from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (2010) and most recently, an honorary degree from Mount Ida College (2013).

“We are here because we have refused to let that painful episode just be a painful spectacle. We have refused to let it be just for nothing,” Hill said. “We have struggled to make it meaningful for women and people of color.”

The decision to nominate Clarence Thomas to replace retiring Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court in 1991 prompted Hill to testify against Thomas who, in her words, “routinely discussed sex” and “routinely discussed pornography in the workplace.”

Hill reflected on the Senate’s reluctance to call her to testify against Thomas only until weeks after it had received her testimony due to “public pressure.”

Appearing before a televised audience of 22 million viewers in October 1991, Hill’s testimony took place in front of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, which in Hill’s words, “didn’t want to be there, and certainly didn’t want to be listening to me.”

In response to Thomas’ infamous defense speech calling his hearing “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” Hill called it a complete misappropriation of history.

“They also allowed him to erase my racial history and the history of African American women who had been sexually abused and physically abused historically and totally erased and totally ignored by the Senate,” Hill said.

In doing so, the Senate also asked the public to “ignore [Hill’s] race and racial experience.”

Photo by Camille Carrillo
The College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room overflowed with 450 attendees, while those who could not enter the auditorium were asked to find a seat in the Humanities Lecture Hall to watch a simulcast of the event. Photo by Camille Carrillo.

Hill also spoke about the issue of sexual harassment on college campuses, stressing the importance of recalling that women in particular assumed “sexual harassment was just life, something you had to put up with.”

After all, she said, as the saying goes, “Boys will be boys, and apparently men will be boys too.”

“Like the Senate Judiciary Committee, university leaders don’t want to make difficult decisions about consequences for people committing sexual assault,” Hill said. “Political leaders need to commit to fighting inequalities.”

After watching the documentary “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power,” professor Aptheker said she decided “then and there” to bring Hill to campus.

“Sexual harassment is a major issue on campuses,” Aptheker said. “Many students are very confused about what sexual harassment is, even though there has been a lot of education about it.”

Events leading up to Hill’s lecture on Feb. 26 included film screenings of the documentary “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” on campus and at the Nickelodeon Theater in downtown Santa Cruz.

The screening on campus was followed by a panel led by Aptheker, assistant professor in Latin American and Latino studies Sylvanna Falcón and Title IX Director Tracey Tsugawa. The panel mediated a discussion on campus sexual harassment.

Tsugawa, in regard to the willingness or reluctance of students who have experienced sexual harassment or assault to speak out, said “there is such power to coming forward and speaking up.”

“In terms of the way it can impact the campus, it is in thinking about women and also men who have been victimized by either sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Falcón said. “My hope is that by looking at [Hill’s] life and the way she has modeled it, you can in fact know your truth and be fearless.”

Toward the end of her lecture, Hill also spoke of the “thousands of letters” she has received since her testimony, which inspired her book “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding a Home.”

Hill reflected on a letter a seventh-grader had sent her, that read, “It seemed Clarence Thomas had won. But he didn’t.”