Growing up on an Oklahoma subsistence farm with her 12 siblings, she was taught to keep her personal business private. That changed in October of 1991 when Clarence Thomas sought his lifetime appointment to the United States Supreme Court. Anita Hill’s moral courage called.
Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Thomas confirmation hearings. She detailed his sexual harassment while she worked as a lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It included everything from pressuring her for dates to graphic talk about pornography. The 14 white men grilled her for hours and, as The New Yorker reported, did everything possible to “degrade Hill’s character and destroy her credibility, accusing her, with no real evidence, of being a liar, a fantasist, and an erotomaniac”.
After the Senate voted 52 to 48 to confirm Thomas, he came to speak at Creighton Law School where I was teaching Women and the Law. I arrived at the ballroom that evening in a black wool skirted suit. When Thomas took the podium, I casually removed my jacket, revealing a t-shirt with Hill’s face and the words, “I BELIEVE ANITA HILL.”
When chastised by a member of the law school faculty, I responded by noting that surely no one should appreciate the exercise of a person’s first amendment rights more than a Supreme Court justice.
In the years that followed, untold numbers of men in power would continue to abuse it and be elevated while women who spoke the truth would continue to be dismissed—Larry Nassar, Roger Ailes, and Harvey Weinstein are simply the ones whose names we recognize today.
In September of 2018, a year after the #MeToo movement went viral, I sat rivetted before the television for hours watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In a quavering voice, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told of her sexual assault by the nominee. Anita Hill had modeled the way for another woman to speak truth to power, whether listened to or denied.
Today Kavanaugh and Thomas both sit on our highest court.
Professor Hill recently came to town from Brandeis University where she teaches to give a speech on leading change and ending gender violence. That morning I proudly attached my hot pink I Believe Anita Hill button to the blue dress I chose in honor of the one she wore during her testimony decades before. My many privileges and the generosity of a local black woman leader meant I’d have a chance to meet my hero.
My heart pounded as I stood in line for my turn. I boasted my 31 year old pin as she signed my copy of her book, Believing, with the words, For Susan, Thanks for your support for believing.
My eyes in the photo above sum up the moment: I could hardly believe it.
Is there a hero who’s inspired you?
What values do they demonstrate that you admire?
Are there small ways you can be like them?