What Anita Hill’s Struggle Still Teaches Women About Equality
Regular “Race and Beyond” author Sam Fulwood III asked Patricia E. Gaston, a member of the current Leadership Institute program, to write this week’s column. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of The Washington Post or any other organization with which she is affiliated.
How can something that happened nearly 23 years ago feel as if it just happened yesterday? I felt that way while watching the newly released documentary “Anita,” which tells the story of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Senate confirmation hearings.
Back in October 1991, I watched the hearings on television from my suburban Dallas living room, talking with colleagues on the phone and becoming increasingly aghast as the questioning dragged on. As a journalist, I was supposed to leave my biases and feelings at the door, but I couldn’t help feeling insulted and assaulted as a woman along with Hill. The same visceral feelings that I felt more than two decades ago welled up in me as I sat in the theater last weekend, reliving the entire episode as it unspooled on film.
Some details remain etched in my brain: Anita Hill testifying for hours, answering questions over and over on conversations she had with Thomas about penis size, pubic hair, and a porn star known as Long Dong Silver; Thomas calling the C-SPAN spectacle a high-tech lynching; and ultimately, Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court where he sits—in silence—today.
Time has a way of washing over details, but I left the theater not debating whether I believed Anita but questioning whether things have changed for women, whether my daughter and my nieces and their friends will get equal pay for equal work, and whether they will remain safe from sexual harassment and assault.
These issues are not new. In fact, when I delved into them while an editor at The Dallas Morning News in the 1980s and 1990s, these issues were talked about—but usually only in whispers. As the co-editor of a 15-part Pulitzer Prize-winning project on violence against women, my team and I examined the universality of violence toward women. After the series ran, I often fielded calls and opened letters from readers who were glad that we were taking the lid off taboo subjects such as sexual harassment, rape, female genital mutilation, and infanticide. Women deserve and should live in a world free from violence.
These days, harassment, sexual violence, and pay equity are no longer seen as women’s issues but as issues that affect all of us. Time has a way of putting things into perspective, and it has not stood still for me or Anita Hill.
The documentary not only looked at the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings and the fallout from Hill’s testimony, but it also gave her a chance to present her side of the story and showed her teaching a new generation about harassment and gender issues.
There is much work to do to continue Hill’s quest for gender equality. We have a Violence Against Women Act, but it struggled for reauthorization for nearly a year before it was finally approved in 2013. And we still see women who are killed or injured at the hands of someone they know. Recently, in the Washington, D.C., area, Khalil Tatum allegedly killed his wife, Andrea Tatum. She would have been just another statistic relegated to the back pages of the newspaper were it not for the fact that Tatum, a janitor at a homeless shelter, was also implicated in the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd.
The pay equity fight is an important facet of the gender equality issue. It continues at a fever pitch, as the HBO documentary “Paycheck to Paycheck” details through the life of Katrina Gilbert of Tennessee—one of 42 million American women living in poverty or on the brink of it. More than 34 states are debating raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour; seven states and the District of Columbia have already raised their minimum wages. A hike in the minimum wage will have a profound effect on the well-being and economic security of women, who account for nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce two actions today—an executive order barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who disclose their wages and a presidential memorandum that compels contractors to keep better records that track wages by sex and race—both aimed at promoting equal pay for women.
While working at Miriam’s Kitchen and on The Way Home campaign to end chronic homelessness in the District of Columbia by 2017, I have seen the way that poverty has taken hold and crippled opportunities for women in some of the world’s richest cities. I have to believe that my $25 monthly donation and my volunteer work are making a difference. But much more is needed.
Indeed, no less an authority than Anita Hill said it best. The beauty of time is that we can see both how far we have come and how far we need to go toward gender equality. “So, we’re at a really critical time,” Hill told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. “I think we started a process in 1991, and I think 22 ½ years later we have enough perspective and enough wisdom … to make sure we hold ourselves accountable to a new generation.”
Patricia E. Gaston is a member of the 2014 class of the Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress and a contract editor at The Washington Post.
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