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Finding Home: Anita Hill 20 Years Later

| October 31, 2011

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Anita Hill; photo by Jenny Warburg

The author, who wasn't around to experience the outrage that women felt at senators' reception of Anita Hill testifying at the Clarence Thomas hearings two decades ago, writes of some epiphanies of her own.

Recently, I was invited to attend Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later at Hunter College, featuring an impressive array of legal experts, scholars, journalists and artists. I may have been one of those attending who knew the least about the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, but I knew I had to be there.

In the fall of 1991, I was 12 and living on the other side of the world, in Taipei, Taiwan. One incident of sexual harassment from that time still stays with me. I was on the bus to school, wearing our very short gym uniform. (Though our skirts had to be a minimum length, our gym shorts were pornographically short.) What I originally assumed was a bag against my rear I soon realized was actually a hand. To this day, I am paranoid about what is behind me when I am in a crowded public space. I avoid congested subways cars and breathe better when my back is to a wall or another woman.

As a thirtysomething Chinese American woman, I don't remember the Hill/Thomas hearings, but I understood without a doubt that this African American woman's fight 20 years ago against sexual harassment and the abuse of power is immediately relevant to the racism and sexism I still feel today. Her fight is my fight. And my struggles are every woman's struggles. For once in my feminist activism over the last four years in New York City, I had a space at that conference where I could be both a person of color and a woman. I could talk about sexism and racism in a group that understands they are intertwined, and that it is inaccurate—and also a simplification afforded by privilege—to consider them separately.

It took me 14 years to realize that I had been a woman of color whose study of racism towards Asians in this country did not include stories of Asian women. It took me 14 years to understand that the unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach that I could never quite figure out was in fact my very smart instinct smelling out the sexism in the Asian American Studies department at my school and the Asian American activist community.

It is true, Anita Hill was unable to persuade the Senate panel to reject Clarence Thomas, and he is still on the Supreme Court. (Although there are current attempts to have him resign.) But Anita Hill's accomplishment was not a loss by any means.

The hearings may have been a joke to justice, but they were crucial in airing the issues that Anita Hill raised. Specific building blocks were put in place during the decades prior that helped Anita Hill's testimony become a symbolic victory on behalf of women fighting for authority of their bodies everywhere. Task  forces set up by this time had charged racism and sexism in the courts. “A few years earlier there wouldn't have been a hearing,” explained Judith Resnik, Yale Law School professor. It needed the action of 120 women law professors around the country who, within 10 hours, signed a statement forcing the Senate Judiciary Committee to not—essentially—brush her off.

For the first time, women across the country and the world saw a “victim” of sexual harassment come forward who was eloquent, calm, and taken seriously. As Catharine MacKinnon, University of Michigan law professor, explained, because of Anita Hill, “sexual harassment became real to the world at large for the first time. After she spoke complaints of sexual harassment tripled and quadrupled" across the country.

There were moments during the conference that I felt completely discouraged and defeated. The seemingly constant avalanche of defeats that I was just learning about seemed one too many. But overall it was a sigh of relief to be there. I felt at home in the large auditorium of women—with a good sized attendance of women of color—and a few men. There were more women of color there than most feminist gatherings I've seen, and I realized that at every feminist event there needs to be an emphasis put on racism with women of color's voices being at the forefront. Specifically, in addition to their feminist topic of choice, white women activists need to prioritize two key issues: one, to work on their own racism; and two, to fight to bring women of color voices to the forefront. Though it may not be easy, it is key that white women figure out how to do this. There is no one answer. As women of color we also get to help our white sisters in this. As a result, all women's lives will improve.

Anita Hill's new book is Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. To find out more, click here for C-SPAN's video of the conference.

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