Anita Hill, I want to personally thank you for what you did for us twenty years ago. Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. Thank you for your quiet dignity, your eloquence and elegance, your grace under pressure. Thank you for illuminating the complexities of female powerlessness and for explaining why you didn’t complain when the offense first occurred, and for describing how cowed and coerced a woman can feel when she’s hit upon by a man who controls her economic destiny.
Twenty years ago you had the courage to tell the truth and do what women rarely did: make a scene. Fifty years ago I didn’t. In the 1960s, when I was a book publishing executive, single and self-supporting, I once was trapped in an elevator with an important and powerful male journalist whose good offices I depended on to give favorable coverage to my company’s books. With absolutely no warning, the man suddenly pinned me against the elevator wall, groped my breasts and shoved a hand under my skirt. Did I press the emergency button?
Of course not; it would have caused a scene. A scene would have imperiled my career. A scene would have marked me as a prude, a troublemaker and that grimmest of all characters, A Girl With No Sense of Humor. A scene would have infuriated and embarrassed the man. A scene might have made the papers, exposing his crude and thuggish behavior to his wife. In the end, the person who would pay a price for his humiliation would be me. He would bad-mouth me in the industry. He would give my company bad press, which in turn would reflect negatively on my work and put my job at risk.
That’s why, instead of screaming, I giggled while I fought him off. I spewed wisecracks as I twisted out of his grasp. I tried to keep smiling while frantically stabbing the L button. Finally, the elevator doors opened, and I made a run for the street. It wasn’t the first or the last time that I escaped an unwanted sexual advance and ended up feeling sullied, scared, cowardly and somehow at fault. Far worse happened to friends of mine and to hundreds of thousands of other working women.
But thanks to you, Anita, we and our daughters and our granddaughters now feel empowered to press the emergency button and report offensive behavior. Thanks to your brave, frank testimony and your stately comportment in the face of hostile interrogation and vilification, we no longer laugh off unwanted sexual advances; we file charges. We no longer protect our attackers from humiliation; we name names. We demand that our employers be accountable to their policies against harassment and that the offender be punished. We may still be risking our jobs, but more and more of us are telling the truth.
It all started with you, Anita. And today we remember and honor what you did. We thank you for making a scene—for doing it fearlessly before the eyes of a riveted nation and inspiring millions of women to defend their dignity as you did yours.
Also in This Forum
“The Legacy of Anita Hill, Then and Now,” by Patricia J. Williams
“Black Women Still in Defense of Ourselves,” by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
“How Anita Hill Changed the World,” by Katha Pollitt
“Taking Up the Legacy of Anita Hill,” by Jessica Valenti