She is still my hero. And today she gave me goosebumps yet again.
Twenty-one years after I first wrote about her in a column for the Chicago Tribune, I listened to Anita Hill, author and law professor, author, advocate and whistle-blowing dragon-slayer, speak to a ballroom of 1,500 women and some men about standing up and speaking the truth.
"This is me, sans the green suit. I am here today to say I am still standing," Hill told the supportive and empathetic crowd at the Chicago Foundation for Women's 27th annual luncheon in Chicago Thursday.
"Yes, I would do it again."
The Brandeis University professor of social policy, law and women's studies was talking about her ground-breaking, nerve-shattering testimony in 1991 before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. There she talked about his repetitive, relentless sexual harassment of her.
Thomas went on to the Supreme Court anyway, but the world was watching and listening. And if we all did not act upon her words in our own lives, her words resonated and percolated within us. For me, she sparked the strength within me that eventually grew too loud to ignore.
When I first saw Anita Hill stand up to the truth, I was working as a freelance journalist and tending to my 3-year-old and 9-month old sons, married to man I later divorced. I was cheering her on. How brave she was. How proud I was of her.
I wrote this about Hill for the Chicago Tribune's "Her Say" column:
Day after day from their elevated seats, the committee members acted like the elitist old guard, badgering Hill and her corroborators, and avoiding compromising questions of the judge accused of inexcusably sexist conduct. And just like the boys in the clubhouse after a rousing 18 holes of golf, the senators repeatedly congratulated each other on their fairness and integrity. Throughout the record, laurels are thrown, trophies offered.
And though there was some infighting among the good old boys about procedures, FBI reports, polygraph tests and admissibility, the senators were one in their exclusionary treatment of the outsiders. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) was belligerent to Hill regarding her capacity to remember specifics. Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) was insulting when he asked Hill if the reason she brought up these allegations were because she was a "scorned woman," had a "martyr complex" or was "out of touch with reality."
At the time, I was a bold, straightforward columnist for newspapers and magazines. But 21 years ago I was married to a man I stayed quiet about. I did not speak up about the violence I endured in my home, married to the handsome attorney husband everyone thought was perfect.
As a journalist I wrote about the bravery of so many others -- Hill was just one of hundreds of women I profiled and opined about. I spoke openly of their bravery. I was not ready to own mine. Eventually I was.
Today in the ballroom of the Hilton Chicago Hotel, Hill was just as inspirational as decades ago, reminding all of us in the room -- entrepreneurs, advocates, philanthropists, academics, journalists -- that we need to support each other and give back, understanding our privilege. "We all need to take responsibility for standing up and speaking out for women," she said to applause and cheers. "That's why I testified. It raised the issue of sexual harassment to a point it never had been before," Hill said. She did it for the integrity of the Supreme Court and the American judicial system.
"I will never recant my statements," Hill said triumphantly. "It will be my legacy. I can go to bed at night knowing I told the truth. I have a clear conscience and it allows me to sleep at night. "
Hill talked about the enduring legacy of violence against women, how poverty and violence create a culture of "home insecurity" that does and will wear women down until we all find ways to help them out of poverty, give them a fair shake and guide them to the better lives they deserve.
I wasn't bold enough to stand up and speak out until 1995 in domestic violence court. I wasn't brave enough to write about it until 1999 in my first book.
But since then I haven't stopped telling the truth, not to my journalism students at Northwestern University's Medill School. Not to the participants in The OpEd Project seminars and fellowships whom we teach to own their expertise and amplify their voices in a larger public conversation. Not in my columns, books, keynotes or workshops.
"This is something that never goes out of fashion," she said. "The suits will go, the hair will go, but not speaking up on behalf of women."
I agree. Once you tell the truth, you can't go back to silence. I will always stand up. And for that, I thank Anita Hill.
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