Long before #MeToo, Christine Blasey Ford and newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, there was Anita Hill.
In 1991, she riveted and divided a nation — enduring everything from character assassination to death threats — as she testified before the United States Senate that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her during the years she worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Thomas would be confirmed, women would be galvanized to run for and attain Congressional seats as never before and Hill would go on to become a professor of law, public policy and women’s studies at Brandeis University, a PEN Courage Award-winning author and a human rights advocate whose new book is “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence.” (Her autobiography, “Speaking Truth to Power,” shares her crucible of testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired at the time by then Sen.now President, Joe Biden.)
But it is a measure of how far we’ve come — and of Hill’s character — that she did not lead with what she called “the 800-pound elephant in the room” when she delivered the keynote address at the April 22 luncheon for Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, The Fund for Women & Girls at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich. Now in its 24th year, The Fund for Women & Girls is the largest of its kind in New England, helping tens of thousands of underserved women and girls in the region.
The Thomas hearings may have shaped Hill, but they have not defined her. No surprise then that she received two standing ovations — one at the end of her talk and one before she even spoke a word — along with a proclamation from Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, citing her courage.
“Through trial and error, I found my way and I continue to find my way,” she told a packed audience of 438 in the room — with 150 attending online. “I survived and you can, too.”
‘Boiling the ocean’
Hill’s way has led her to become an educator and in particular to educate people about gender violence. “What do I mean by gender-based violence?” she asked. “It’s a range of behaviors as described by people who have been victimized” that can include anything from sexual harassment in the workplace to rape. Hill said she “ostentatiously called” her new book “Believing,” “because I believe the research. I believe the data.”
The statistics are alarming. One in four women will be the victims of intimate-partner violence, 10 million women a year — the populations of Arkansas, Missouri and her native Oklahoma combined. Half of all working women will be sexually harassed in their lives, which may include physical and sexual violence. Seven out of 10 who report the behavior will face retaliation. The rates are higher for women of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
Nor is gender violence limited to men harassing women. One in six men will be victims of sexual violence, she said, while 48% of children will be sexually harassed and bullied. Elder abuse is another form of gender violence, she added. And while the term Hill used throughout her talk is “gender violence,” she noted that those who are nonbinary — who do not see themselves as exclusively male or female — can be abused as well.
If it seemed as if she were defining the issue broadly, “boiling the ocean” as she put it, it’s because the problem is both nuanced and systemic with repercussions for the health of victims and of the workplace and economy.
The United Nations acknowledged the issue 30 years ago, she said. “It’s time to stop admiring the problem and find solutions,” she added.
Those solutions can range from the behavior of students to initiatives by the federal government. It should not be acceptable, for example, for boys to pull down girls’ pants as a way to attract their attention, she said. Nor should it be acceptable for the Senate Judiciary Committee to treat a Supreme Court nominee with less than respect, which is what many who tuned into the Jackson hearings saw.
“Racism and sexism still exist,” Hill said. “But it doesn’t reflect all of America,” although she added, “we must stop denigrating civil rights protections.”
Though she did not address it in her prepared remarks or in her subsequent onstage conversation with retiring Community Foundation President and CEO Juanita James — who was also honored at the event — Hill received an apology from Biden when he was running for president for the way he handled the Thomas hearings, which ended in what was reportedly a brokered, bipartisan deal to get Thomas confirmed. (Four women who would’ve backed Hill’s story were never called to testify.) She has said elsewhere that she would be willing to work with the federal government on gender violence, just as she chairs Hollywood’s Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, noting that “Hollywood has glamorized bad behavior.”
In their onstage conversation, James noted that Hill has been able to endure and achieve in part because of her support system. The youngest of 13 children, Anita Faye Hill was born into a farming family in Lone Tree, Oklahoma — the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of slaves. Class valedictorian at Morris High School, she received a bachelor’s degree in psychology with honors from Oklahoma State University. Steered away from a career in the sciences by an adviser because it would be too hard, presumably for a woman, Hill took the “easy” way out and went to Yale Law School, earning her Juris Doctor with honors.
After the Thomas debacle, she served as an assistant professor at the O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University from 1983 to 1986, before the law school migrated to Regent University, and then taught at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where she became the first tenured African American professor in 1989. But calls for her resignation as a result of her testimony against Thomas persisted, and she left in 1996. Two years later, she became a visiting scholar at Brandeis and a professor in 2015.
Those who do not have Hill’s wide support system have to be family to themselves, she said. But she also spoke with passion about the work of The Fund for Women & Girls, which has awarded $8.8 million in 444 grants to women and girls in need across Fairfield County’s 23 municipalities. One of the greatest needs — family economic security. The MIT Living Wage Calculator for Fairfield County estimates that a woman with a child requires an annual income of nearly $76,000 for basic needs. But the median income for women in Fairfield County is only $63,000.
Hence The Fund for Women & Girls and its new emme coalition. Standing for “empowerment, mindfulness, motivation and education,” the program is designed to help women and girls obtain quality health care, as described at the luncheon by Chilean immigrant Jaqueline Carrizo, a beneficiary of the coalition’s services.
As with aiding the underserved, fighting gender violence is not a sprint or a marathon, Hill said, but a relay.
“It takes a lot of people to move the needle.”
For more, visit FCCFoundation.org or call 203-750-3200.