- Harrison Berry
- Colleen Ellis (left) presents author and jurist Anita Hill (right) with a handmade bracelet.
"They didn't want to hear me speak up," Hill said. "Nevertheless, I persisted. If I had to do it all over again, I would say, 'Yes.'"
Hill, who was speaking at a reception preceding her Oct. 11 Bellwood Lecture in Moscow, is a noted public intellectual, academic and author, but it was during her 1991 testimony that she became an icon of civil rights and feminist movements. During her remarks on Tuesday, she used her personal struggles to unpack ideas about how collecting data on the lived experiences of marginalized groups can safeguard and advance the cause of civil rights—and to show how data collection has been attacked under the Trump administration.
Her talk made the early 1990s seem simultaneously remote and chafingly contemporary. A lot has changed since she alleged so publicly that Thomas, a prominent, black, conservative judicial appointee made inappropriate advances toward her—an event that triggered a shift in attitudes about workplace sexual harassment. At the same time, however, little has changed. The question at the center of Hill's address Tuesday night was how best to measure issues that relate to civil rights.
"I don't think we should limit ourselves to the government's records," she said. "We've got to measure true equality on a whole range of levels."
The problem, she said, is relying on the government to conduct data collection that could be brought to bear on social issues and policymaking. It's also incumbent on academia, nonprofits, activists and attorneys to drive record-keeping and change. Case in point: During the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, data on the wage gap vanished from the White House website, along with information about LGBT people and climate change.
In addition, President Donald Trump later released a slew of businesses from an equal pay pledge they'd signed during Obama's tenure, which was yielding vast amounts of information about working women and people of color. That data is now unavailable, perhaps forever; there has been no word from the Trump administration on what, if anything, is being done with it. Ending that pledge was one of many ways Trump has distinguished himself from—and, some would argue, erased the legacy of—his predecessor.
"We're facing a very new challenge to civil rights, and that is the erasure of information that can be used to inform law and policy," Hill said.
There is a line to be drawn between Hill's experience and the present day. Then, as now, gaps in evidence and data are filled with assumptions and what Hill called "myth-making." Rebutting Hill's allegations in 1991, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) claimed Hill was working with "slick lawyers and interest groups" in a coordinated character assassination of Thomas, claiming The Exorcist inspired her testimony. Meanwhile, Hill said, experts with knowledge of workplace sexual harassment and witnesses to back up her claims waited in the wings but were not allowed to testify.
"What happens when you don't rely on facts: You fill in with myths about people's experiences," she said.
Those myths and the lack of credence the senators on the committee gave to her testimony, Hill said, had a "chilling effect" on women coming forward with stories of their own, sending the message that they would not be believed. In her own case, senators reacted to her accusation by offering Thomas the rights and privileges of someone facing criminal allegations, rather than scrutinizing his character to determine whether he was fit to serve on the Supreme Court.
"They said Clarence Thomas was innocent until proven guilty, and what does that sound like? A criminal standard," Hill said. "But they were looking at Clarence Thomas' fitness to serve on the Court. They were applying the wrong standard."