Content warning: This article includes mentions of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
When Anita Hill took the stage of Hauck Auditorium on Thursday evening, the audience wasted no time in giving her a standing ovation.
The audience, which was filled primarily with women of different ages, came out to listen to the lawyer and civil rights activist speak on change-making and her testimony against then-nominee for the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas. Part of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research’s Jing Lyman Lecture Series, the lecture was also the institute’s first event of 2024. The Institute will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.
Hill now serves as a professor of social policy, law and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University.
“In 1991, I had no idea that I would be here today, honestly,” Hill said, referring to the year she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hill accused Thomas of workplace sexual harassment when she worked at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her testimony, which was given in front of a committee of 14 white men led by then-Senator Joe Biden, reshaped how the U.S. thought about sexual and gender-based violence.
“I’ve learned a lot about Anita Hill growing up,” said audience member Mira Joseph. “In history class she came up a few times. She was inspiring.”
Lindsay Wu ’24 came to the event to learn more about Hill, particularly since the first Supreme Court Justice she ever saw confirmed was Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by former Stanford teacher Christine Blasey Ford at the time of his confirmation.
“I feel like she’s a cultural figure who I don’t understand as much,” Wu said.
The range of people in the audience, whether they watched Hill testify in 1991 or grew up learning about her, embodied an integral point of Hill’s speech: the intergenerational importance of creating social change.
The 1991 hearing
Hill started her lecture by acknowledging a “collective grief” that many people across the country feel in light of numerous Supreme Court decisions and, more broadly, the current state of gender-based and race-based equality.
“I get it. I understand that. But I think we should not lose hope,” Hill said. She added that “inclusive conversations and diverse voices” have brought the U.S. closer to gender-based equality.
While the fight for gender equality continues, Hill acknowledged that “we have made great advances, and we’re closer today than we have ever been in my lifetime.”
When Hill testified in 1991, “most of the 30 million households” in the U.S. did not know what the term “sexual harassment” meant, let alone the ways in which the legal system impacts those who experience sexual violence, according to Hill.
“I think if we remember back to ’91 … we will say that that spectacle, as hard as it was to endure, actually opened us up to a conversation that has created awareness and has ultimately brought about social and cultural change,” Hill said.
Hill attributed the fact that the hearing happened at all to the efforts to increase the presence of women in the workplace in the 1970s and ’80s. Hill also cited lawsuits that moved to allow employees to sue employers for sexual harassment and to hold people accused of sexual harassment accountable.
“Given the social culture that had been created by the wave of people who identified as women into the labor force, into workplaces — how could the 1991 hearings not become a turning point for understanding women’s lived experiences?” Hill said.
When Hill left the hearing on Oct. 12, 1991, she found out that 7 out of 10 viewers believed that her testimony was made up. But two years following her testimony, the numbers were reversed.
This reversal, Hill said, was a quick social change that did not happen by itself. One factor she pointed to as a major contributor of this change were the 1,600 Black women scholars who put an ad in The New York Times titled “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves.” That ad, along with increased media coverage and urgency around the issue of workplace harassment, paved the way for change.
“The ads gave us a glimpse into the behaviors from the perspective of generations of Black women,” Hill said. “Despite the naysayers and the conspiracy theorists who thought that I was a pawn of some left-wing conspiracy, the public discourse about gender and harassment and gendered political representation grew and turned to a conversation about the lives of working women.”
Measuring change from the ‘long-view’
Nearly 27 years after Anita Hill’s hearing, a full-page ad by 1,600 male scholars ran in The New York Times: “We believe Anita Hill. We also believe Christine Blasey Ford.”
The ad was posted against the backdrop of Ford’s testimony against Kavanaugh.
“That’s real notable progress,” Hill said, pointing out the significance of a “diverse group of men weighing in on gender equity, with Black feminism as a model.”
The progress reached beyond that moment: Progress, to Hill, means any time marginalized groups are brought to the public consciousness and included in conversations about societal issues. From the conversations around anti-Asian racism following the Atlanta spa shootings to the discussions sparked by the Me Too movement, Hill said, the modern era’s societal and cultural shifts are signs of progress.
“As we focus on what is happening today, one of the things that we need to do is stop measuring progress by the passage of a law alone, or measuring progress — or, in some cases, regression — by a Supreme Court decision,” Hill said. “We are bigger than that as a society.”
One way to shift how we measure societal change, Hill said, is to look at change from the “long-view” instead.
In her own life, Hill looks at the fact that, due to the oppression her family faced under Jim Crow laws, her mother never had the opportunity to get an education. Hill’s mother worked hard to make sure that her children would receive that opportunity — and her dream came true.
“That doesn’t happen without setbacks, folks,” Hill said. “We just have to have enough faith, the faith that my mother had to believe that we deserve a better future to make sure that those changes happen.”
Before the crowd departed for the evening, Hill shared one last comment with the crowd. She said that people often ask her if she would testify again if she could go back in time. Her answer?