Quarter-century after Thomas hearing, Anita Hill fights on against harassment

LA Premiere of
Anita Hill (center), subject of the HBO film "Confirmation," poses with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (left) and star Kerry Washington at the premiere of the film at Paramount Studios on March 31, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Twenty-five years after she alleged sexual harassment by a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Anita Hill will headline the Pennsylvania Conference for Women on Oct. 6 at the Convention Center.

And, yes, Hill plans to talk about how to address harassment in the working world today, for a generation of millennial women who either weren't born or didn't know Hill's name in 1991, the year she appeared before an all-male congressional inquiry.

A renowned attorney, author, and law professor, Hill gave testimony during Clarence Thomas' Senate confirmation hearing that ignited a national debate on workplace sexual harassment.

In 1997, Hill published her autobiography, Speaking Truth to Power, and in April actress Kerry Washington portrayed Hill in an HBO adaptation titled Confirmation.

Initially, Hill wanted nothing to do with HBO's movie but eventually cooperated after Washington's personal appeal as executive producer, Hill said in an interview last week.

"I was consulted about the movie, and had a chance to talk to the filmmakers, specifically the writer, as well as Kerry Washington. She wanted to get inside my head."

Hill's reaction to the movie?

"It's very difficult when someone has lived an experience that's very intense, but the film captures a moment in history, the core truth of the episode, and brings new evidence, as well as things I wasn't experiencing behind the scenes with Republicans," who prevented witnesses from coming forward to support her testimony.

"We're bringing all of that to light for a new generation. It was a critical turning point in the way we view the issue of sexual harassment," Hill said. "It raised critical questions about the role of race and the judiciary, as well as elected representation."

Four other women - among them, friends and coworkers such as Angela Wright and Rose Jourdain - were never called as witnesses. As a result, elections after Hill's testimony tripled the number of women in the Senate; women in the House increased by 60 percent.

Hill, a Brandeis University professor, joins actress and author Mindy Kaling and Abby Wambach, two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA Women's World Cup soccer champion, as keynote speakers at this year's Pennsylvania Conference for Women (www.paconferenceforwomen.org).

Her appearance highlights the stubborn statistics on sexual politics, borne out by a June Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report (https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/upload/report.pdf).

It notes that almost one-third of the approximately 90,000 claims received by EEOC in 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment - charges of unlawful harassment on the basis of sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), race, disability, age, ethnicity/national origin, color, and religion.

A quarter-century after Hill brought harassment in the workplace to the forefront of American conversation, women, gay, transgender, and people of color continue to grapple with the same issues.

"She changed the world and put sexual harassment on the stage and is a feminist icon," Washington said in an interview earlier this year on Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul Sessions at supersoul.tv.

Awareness of rape on college campuses is a direct result of the movement she began, Hill said.

"One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their life. That should be viewed as a crisis. But it isn't. However, on many college campuses across the country, young women and some men are stepping forward in solidarity. We're seeing a movement take place. Young people today are doing what I did after the confirmation hearings - making connections with those who have similar views," Hill said.

"A lot of women are angry. I've been hearing from women who are very sad and hurt from their own experiences in the workplace," she said. "But there's a new resolve, and that's always positive."

At the conference, Hill plans to talk about the EEOC report, new recommendations about how harassment and other factors impede women's progress over the course of their lives, and ways to confront it.

Does she ever regret her testimony against Thomas?

No, Hill says.

"If there is a silver lining, we began to grow and learn as a country," she said. "I have a much bigger life than just the hearing. I do a lot of different things, and I'm proud of all of them. Still, I don't run away from this."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund