Anita Hill sees dawn of ‘new day’ in fight against sexual harassment
Storrs — Twenty-six years later, Anita Hill admits to being impatient.
But she sounded anything but discouraged Thursday in delivering a talk on sexual harassment at the University of Connecticut’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, where she was the keynote speaker for UConn’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Living Legacy Convocation.
“I believe we are on the verge of something monumental,” she said. “I want to be part of it.”
Now a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University, the 61-year-old Hill was thrust into the limelight in October 1991 during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, then a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her while she was working for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Thomas, who famously claimed to be the victim of “a high-tech lynching,” was narrowly confirmed.
Greeted with a standing ovation Thursday, Hill spoke for about 50 minutes, saying at the outset that she was not going to regale the audience with tales of the Thomas hearings.
“There are tapes,” she said to some laughter.
Instead, she hailed the start of “a new day” in the history of sexual harassment in the workplace — the result, she said, of the bravery of women and girls who have stood up to their harassers and demanded that their stories of abuse be heard.
“For too long, we were dismissive of these stories, but we are in a new day,” Hill said. “Things are going to change for the better.”
Throughout history, she said, change has occurred when people have had hope.
Hill recounted the decadeslong struggle to eradicate sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, starting in the 1960s with the passage of Title VII, which outlawed workplace discrimination, including that based on gender, and prohibited sexual harassment.
“Little attention was paid to it,” she said of the law, noting that more than 90 percent of the women who responded to a magazine survey at the time reported being subjected to sexual harassment where they worked.
In the 1970s, Hill said, judges were apt to view complaints of sexual harassment as personal rather than legal matters. Even after the passage of Title IX in 1972, which sought to foster sexual equality in education, women on campus victimized by harassers often were sent to the chaplain’s office for counseling, though the chaplains had no specific training in the area and no authority to punish offenders.
Cases surfaced in the 1990s in which judges themselves were the harassers, soliciting sexual favors from women working throughout the legal system, Hill said.
She described the landmark case of Mechelle Vinson, a Washington, D.C., bank teller who filed a 1978 lawsuit against a boss she claimed had repeatedly sexually assaulted her. A district judge ruled against Vinson, a decision an appeals court reversed, prompting the bank to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1986, the high court held that sexual coercion is a violation of Title VII and that companies can be held liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors.
With that one Supreme Court case as a backdrop, Hill said she wasn’t motivated to bring a sexual harassment complaint against Thomas but rather to speak out about his fitness for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.
Since then, Hill has received thousands of letters from victims of abuse — not just sexual abuse but all forms of abuse of power, she said.
If Hill’s 1991 testimony and the events surrounding it had changed everything, “We wouldn’t have been so shocked by the revelations of the last year,” Hill said. “We got to this moment not simply because of Harvey Weinstein, some actors and others who came forward. We got here because of the events of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and those who came forward when there was little hope of success.”
Hill called on students and others in attendance, those with “clout in business,” to call out instances of sexual harassment and ensure “due process” for victims and the accused alike. She urged that they contact their representatives in Congress to complain about harassment in government and the need to protect women in the armed forces from sexual assault.
“We all should be impatient,” she said.
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