Anita Hill: Keep the Faith and Keep Moving

Brandeis University professor of law, public policy and women’s studies Anita Hill is the keynote speaker for this year’s Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Policy Summit this weekend. Photo courtesy Anita Hill

Brandeis University professor of law, public policy and women’s studies Anita Hill is the keynote speaker for this year’s Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Policy Summit this weekend. Photo courtesy Anita Hill

By the time attorney Anita Faye Hill pulled up to the Senate Judiciary Committee table in 1991 in Washington, D.C., to tell her story of sexual harassment, she had moved on in her career from the dark days she described in painful detail as legal adviser to Clarence Thomas, then the head of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. She had left his employment and become a tenured professor at the University of Oklahoma's College of Law in her home state.

Hill's life changed after she appeared before the committee to accuse Thomas, George H.W. Bush's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, of repeated sexual harassment while she was in his employment. The nation, and especially women, were riveted as she calmly told her story, as male lawmakers sought to discredit her, with Thomas himself accusing his opponents of a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." He would be confirmed by four votes.

Since then, Hill, now 59, has dedicated her work to raising awareness of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, equity and workplace discrimination. In 1997, she became a professor of law, public policy and women's studies at Brandeis University, near Boston, Mass., where she still teaches.

Hill, the youngest of 13 children of farmers, is keynoting the Mississippi Women's Economic Security Policy Summit this weekend in Jackson, where she will address ways to improve the economic security of women and families in Mississippi. She spoke to the Jackson Free Press by phone.

Why are you coming to Mississippi for this women's summit?

(The summit) is important because of several things. One, even though we're talking about women of Mississippi, and I'm not from Mississippi, the issues raised in these conversations are not limited to women of Mississippi. There are particular challenges you face as a largely small town and rural state. I come from the state of Oklahoma, which faces some of the same challenges. Many families in Mississippi are single-parent families (which is) a challenge throughout the country. ... The challenges aren't entirely unique, but there are specific nuances that demand that Mississippi think about how to address them specific to the environment and resources of the state. ...

Child care is an important issue ... (as are) legal reforms related to domestic violence, which affects a lot of women from all different backgrounds and status. What's good is (the summit leaders) have thought about it and engaged policy makers and those who have a stake in the outcomes of these suggestions. They've engaged them in the conversation; that's really exciting.

They're drawing on collective energy. ... How can women coming together with all different backgrounds and challenges find answers to problems a broad range of people are experiencing?

You are a champion of workplace equity. Talk about what it looks like.

It looks like a lot of things, like equal pay for equal work. It looks like adequate health care for women, whether in the workplace or working from home. Making sure that harassment and sexual violence are removed entirely from the workplace. It looks like really a livable wage, so that women can afford basics like food and housing. ... It's a big bundle of issues: We can't prioritize just one. We have to respond to all of them. It's easy to name them; the hard part is to figure out how to put together strategies and tactics for addressing the issue. ...

It's an important conversation to have, so when we are naming them, we are meeting together as a group of people, women and men that are interested. We are giving some faces and names to the issue, instead of looking at them as abstract issues and numbers. I'm thinking this summit is going to energize people.

I know it's hard to prioritize, but in a state so unfriendly to women, where do we start?

I just said I can't choose! The answer really is in some ways about strategy. The issue around child care some may not see as most important, because it's not a factor women have to deal with throughout their lives, (but) there is an impact on everybody. Women, men, family, siblings. Not something men should be saying is a woman's issue. 
 We now know that many two-parent families require two incomes just to be able to stay in the middle class or reach the middle class. The ability for both to go to work, support and care for children is critical. You can't have those two incomes, and child care is so costly that it takes away the entire income of one of the parents.

But pay equity (is vital, too). When it comes right down to it, what we're talking about for most women is family income. It affects everybody. It's not just an issue for just single women or even single women with children; it's an issue for everyone in a modern economy. ... And, if you don't access the kind of health care you need to stay well and get routine (preventative) exams, again, it puts a drain on the entire family.

Many Mississippians believe the state won't change the way it treats women and vulnerable children. What words of hope and inspiration can you offer?

I think that's hard; people are where they are. Sometimes it's impossible to see outside of that space. I try to remind people that we've come a long way from where we (were). I've seen it in my lifetime, in my own personal experience. I especially like to think about it from the viewpoint of my mother, who was born in 1911 and had 13 children in rural Oklahoma. If you think about how different my life is from hers and the opportunities I (had), not just by chance ... because people were willing to change and commit to better education, to better opportunities for girls like me, my life was quite different from hers. ... It's a hard thing to tell people that feel they don't have chances that things will change ... I understand people who feel despair. I also think that if they can't draw on the energy and history of how far we've come in the last two or three generations, at least they can look at the kinds of peoples at this summit ... who keep working to make sure life is better for all the women in Mississippi. ... Women are working on it every day. Keep the faith and keep moving.

You advise women to reimagine home as well as equality and say that you've had to seek out a new "intellectual home" in your lifetime. Explain what you mean.

The real value of home is a place we can feel shelter and comfortable so that we can go out and live as equals in the world. We know there are challenges to doing that, starting right in the home. They range from domestic violence to just the overwhelming responsibility of working the second shift. (Women often do) both the day job and all the home work and child care. What we have to do is to focus on what we need out of a home, to give us sustenance and make us secure, as opposed to seeing a home as a financial asset or a status symbol.

When I (moved from Oklahoma University to Brandeis University), I was looking for a place where I could express myself fully intellectually and work on issues I cared about and felt supported in doing that. I found that at Brandeis. ... I want to be able to have freedom to do and say what I think are important ideas, to be able to express those in a thoughtful, professional way.

Black women must face both racism and sexism, both of which were so on display during the Thomas hearings. What advice do you have for our female readers of color?

We all know our country's history; it's not limited to Mississippi. We have to acknowledge that racial experience of women of color (and reexamine our) expectations of what government can and will do. People have to be open to that. We also have to be open to hearing the ways that we're similar to all women: yes, experiences are unique ... even for African American women as opposed to African American men.

How have you seen structural racism play into double discrimination against black women?

If we go back to the structures and the way our systems are built, one of the things that happened during the Thomas hearings, an odd thing, was there was a great deal of conversation around this thing of "high-tech lynching," the whole idea that black men historically had been victimized because of their race, because they were men, by lynching, which was officially sanctioned. But there were no conversations about the history of sexual abuse of black women. No acknowledgement of that. So built into this (confirmation) process was just a viewing of the racial experience to be seen only through the eyes of black men. We don't even teach the history of black women as black women. What has that been? The process didn't even allow for questions about that.

Would it have different had I been a white woman? I don't think the Judiciary Committee was equipped to deal with the issue of gender violence on any level. ... It might have changed alliances had I not been an African American woman. One example was (now-deceased Sen.) Strom Thurmond. I'm not sure that Strom Thurmond would have been so willing to embrace Clarence Thomas had I been a white woman. ... We haven't quite figured out what to do with (the race-sex question); we certainly hadn't in 1991. So the questions that were asked, the alliances made, were shaped in part in ways we're only beginning to understand.

Is it getting easier for women of color to be heard in such situations?

I think it's getting better. One, you don't want the shame onto your community ... you don't want to play into that stereotype. You also don't want to bring in too much policing into the community that may not understand the impact on the family when there is domestic violence reported.

At the same time, built into that understanding is this idea of hierarchy—who is deserving of protection? Who is most deserving? I'd like to just sum it up by saying: No community can be truly free and equal if half of that community is subject to violence, if half of that community cannot count on the basic protections of the law, with anti-discrimination laws based on gender, policing and protection from domestic violence. None of us can be free unless all of us can be protected and safe. The African American community is stronger if all its members are safe and secure. ...

It's so complicated; I don't want to make it seem so simple; there's a long process of trying to move beyond it. One of the things I have learned is it's always very easy to racialize violent behavior. Look deeply enough, honestly enough, we find it exists in every community, every class. It may vary in different locations, but anti-women experience exists throughout our experience.

Around here, most media love to lead with crime, especially by young men of color, and the tendency is for many people to blame "the family" and especially single mothers. How do you respond to that narrative?

The thing I find very interesting is we don't think about the role that poverty plays. And we don't necessarily even think about racializing crime when it's not being committed by a person of color. That just sort of says about society that race is still a compelling and easy explanation. It keeps us from having to look at some of the harder and underlying problems that contribute to crime. ... We fall back on racial explanations. ...

What would you say to share some of your apparent strength for speaking out about injustice?

I direct a lot of what I say to people in power. They really should be the target. ... I just give them examples of women who have come through and feel stronger having come through. I also say to everyone: I'm not telling you what you should do with your strength. I'm not saying to every woman you should come forward. ... But there are rewards on the other end (that) relieves you of the burden of holding secrets. ... Find allies, supporters, who believe in you, know you, love you unconditionally. I was fortunate because I have all of those things. I try to tell policymakers, decision makers, I can't promise every woman support ... but they should be able to promise everyone that they will go into a process that is fair, just, allows them to speak, and be witness to their own experience and the truth of it.

Get details on Hill's appearance here. For details on the summit and Hill's keynote, visit mswomensecure.org.


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