CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Though her hair is shorter, she looks very similar to the images from two decades ago. This Anita Hill is funnier than you might imagine, alluding lightly to her moment in the political spotlight, while promising to talk about it at more length later during her speech. (“I do have a few things I want to say after 20 years.”) Then again, she didn’t have much to smile about when she was being grilled by an all-white, all-male Senate panel.
At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte this week, a crowd that spilled over into the balcony of the student center auditorium listened raptly as Hill discussed “Speaking Truth to Power,” the name of her book. Wearing glasses and occasionally looking at her notes, she was the Brandeis University academic -- one with star power.
Though the world got to know Anita Hill during the 1991 U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for now-Justice Clarence Thomas, Hill spoke most eloquently of her life before then. The youngest of 13 said of her mother, “If I could live up to her standards, I didn’t have to worry about the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
The hearings changed her life, she said, but they “did not define me.” Did she want to testify publicly about something that was “so deeply hurtful”? Absolutely not, she said. “It was not on my bucket list. I had relevant information and that’s what I testified to.”
While it changed the dialogue on sexual harassment and gender equality, she acknowledged that some younger women may be skeptical about that message today, and think that “talking about sexism is so 20th century.”
The country’s progress, Hill said, is still undermined by lingering gender and racial issues that are sometimes ignored during difficult economic times. “We lose our focus when we’re in a recession; we lose our focus when we’re in prosperity,” she said. “Our country is a multicultural, multidimensional country,” and that is its strength.
“We can do more in our thinking,” she offered up as a challenge, to “truly believe that a world that is good for women is good for everyone.” The work place has changed, but a wage gap still exists.
Women still struggle for basic health-care coverage, she said, though she noted the different look of today’s Supreme Court now hearing arguments on the Affordable Care Act. Hill said she was “especially proud we now have Sonia Sotomayor,” her fellow Yale law graduate, calling her “a ‘wise Latina’ and an exemplary justice as I knew she would be.”
Hill’s respect for the court started long before her role in its history. “I was a beneficiary of a decision that was made before I was born,” she said. Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregated schools “had on their face the idea that your life was limited,” she said. That landmark decision represented “a real belief in a country that could do better and would do better.”
During and after the 1991 hearings, when Hill’s opponents were trying to take away her tenure at the University of Oklahoma Law School in her home state and destroy her career, even alleging that she was insane, she said she had “wonderful colleagues who supported me, mostly academics, not high-powered lawyers.” She called them good people, but “no match for Washington, D.C.”
Hill said she held onto her parents’ message “not to be defined by others, not even to be defined by circumstances – to dream big and prepare for the future.”
Judy Aulette, a professor of women’ and gender studies at UNCC, said she had not thought about Anita Hill for a long time. “Probably a lot of my students have never heard of her,” she said. They think that gender equality battles have been won until they see the data on wage disparities and the underrepresentation of women in government, she said.
Junior biology major Delina Meskel, 20, who called Hill’s story “inspiring,” said she thought society was “pretty equal” until the recent debate over women’s health and contraception coverage. She only learned about Hill’s story this semester, but said she wanted to thank her “for fighting for women’s rights.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.,-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post “She the People” blog, The Root, NPR, Fox News Charlotte, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog and was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcurtisnc3