Twenty years ago this week I was a new mother with a four-month-old daughter, juggling the baby's needs while trying to watch the riveting testimony of Anita Hill during the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. I'd worked out a schedule with my employer that allowed me to work from home two days a week, so I was able to watch much of the testimony live with the TV on in the background.
Like many other women, I found myself shouting at the questions posed to Hill and frustrated by the inability of the male senators to "get it." And when Thomas was confirmed by a narrow margin and pundits questioned Hill's veracity, I thought to myself, "She sacrificed her professional career for nothing. They didn't believe her."
Thankfully, I was wrong. As Hill told Gwen Ifill in an interview for PBS Newshour broadcast yesterday, she's received 25,000 letters over the past two decades and many have been supportive: "they tell me what the hearings meant to them in their lives. And I am...hearing from women, who say what the hearing meant and what my testimony meant, and then what they have been able to do in their lives in response to it in terms of their own life situations."
Until Anita Hill, women put up with sexual harassment in the workplace because fighting back often meant losing one's job. Her testimony launched a national debate that slowly changed the way we approach male-female relationships in the workplace. Women (and men) now know where the boundaries are, and nearly all companies have sexual harassment policies that offer a way for victims of both genders to report incidents and hold perpetrators accountable.
Anita Hill's testimony didn't end this workplace issue . Subtle sexual harassment still exists. My older daughter -- the one who was four months old during the Thomas confirmation hearings -- just told me what had happened to her a couple of weeks ago. A college student who works part-time, she was struggling to lift something heavy when a married 30-something male supervisor came up behind her, pressed himself against her and wrapped his arms around hers in order to "help" her lift the item. He then made a comment that, out of context, sounded innocent but was suggestive and open-ended, but she backed away and didn't respond.
When she told me -- protective mother that I am -- I jumped in with a million suggestions. But she explained that she'd already solved the problem in a later conversation; he'd thought she was 27 and when she made it clear she was a 20-year-old student, he was clearly taken aback and has been nothing but businesslike since then.
My daughter shouldn't have to worry about this at work. No woman should. But I'm heartened by the fact that the world my daughter is growing up in is significantly better than the one she was born into thanks to Anita Hill. One woman's testimony gave us all a compelling story and put a face on sexual harassment. In the long run, her story proved more effective than statistics and studies and raw numbers in conveying the issue. Although Anita Hill's name will always be synonymous with what happened 20 years ago, she's come to terms with that as she explained in the Newshour interview:
GWEN IFILL: People look at you still and think of you as the poster girl, the poster woman for gender and race discussions, debates in our country. Is that what you want to be?
I have -- often say to people that you really don't get to decide your own legacy. I mean, what you do is, you try to be your own authentic self. And then people decide how they're going to interpret that and what it means to them.
If I can mean to people -- if I can symbolize the ability to pursue gender equality, racial equality, and to be truthful about our experiences, then, absolutely, that's what I want to be.
Photo of Anita Hill © Scott Wintrow/Getty Images