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Anita Hill urges community action in confronting sexual violence

Attorney, professor of law and advocate Anita Hill delivered the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address in Alumni Gym on Thursday, Jan. 10. 

Too often in our collective history, sexual violence has been ignored or even erased, said Anita Hill Thursday night speaking to a crowded Alumni Gym. But despite that history, there is reason to be confident about positive change, she said, as a growing number of people come to comprehend how such violence impacts people directly and our society more broadly. 

Look no further than how the message of Martin Luther King Jr. was received by those he inspired, with the lesson that collectively we are impacted by the injustices that people suffer individually, said Hill as she delivered the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address. Look at the progress that has been made since 1991, she said, when her own testimony during the U.S. Supreme Court nomination hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment.  

"People will say we have learned nothing since 1991, and I would say we have learned a lot since 1991," Hill said. "I want you to rest assured that those 27 years meant something and they are going to mean even more now that we realize how tenuous our situations can be. We will not go back and in some ways, we need to recommit to something that is very simple, a simple idea — that women and girls are entitled to work, to be educated and to live free of sexual violence."

An attorney, Brandeis University professor of law and an advocate of equality and civil rights, Hill has taken a leading role in pressing for parity and protection for women and minorities since she was thrust into the national spotlight during those 1991 hearings. 

The advent of the #MeToo movement during the past several years following a stream of stories about sexual harassment in a wide span of industries has again brought Hill's work to the forefront. Then last fall, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faced accusations of sexual assault from Christine Blasey Ford when both were teenagers, with those accusations delivered during his nomination hearing and many marking similarities to the Thomas hearings 27 years before. 

"I have so much to say, because there is so much going on in the world," Hill said to open her address, which is part of a series of events this year to celebrate King's life and legacy. At her address Thursday night, Hill was introduced by Professor of Philosophy Ann Cahill. 

In pointing to the future, Hill drew lessons from the past and pointed to this time in our history as a pivotal moment and an opportunity to more fully address the impact of sexual violence and act to more effectively deliver the message that it won't be tolerated. Pulling from King's famed 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Hill noted that the civil rights leader believed building community was a strategy that would sustain the civil rights movement. 

"The strategy was inclusiveness," Hill said. "He had to make it not just the movement of the people who are oppressed, but he had to let the world understand that the oppression that was being experienced in the African-American community he was leading — that oppression as affecting everyone, directly and indirectly."

Hill said she had that same realization during student protests at her university in 2015 during which students staged a sit-in. "If you do not understand what all the members of your community are experiencing, if you don't appreciate it, then you are not going to ever be able to move forward as an institution," Hill said. 

This same strategy applies to the movement to combat sexual harassment and sexual violence, Hill said. Tarana Burke, who coined the #MeToo hashtag to raise awareness about sexual violence, understood that the movement could focus on a broader community healing, she said. 

Last year's nomination hearings for Kavanaugh "jolted [us] back to a past that we all believed that we as a nation had grown beyond." However, Hill said, "I know we are in a new day and I know we can move forward."

That path forward includes more fully recognizing the steps that pioneers have taken forward to elevate the discussion about the impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence to ensure that it isn't erased, Hill said. It's imperative to resist attempts to ignore the issue, such as underreporting data about how often it occurs and diminishing the size of the population it impacts, she said. 

"This erasure is really a threat to our progress because if we don't have adequate information, if we don't have public officials who care, they are destined to make policies that reflect their lack of concern," Hill said. 

Hill called for engaging more men in the movement — by recognizing those men who are themselves victims of sexual violence but who are discouraged from talking about it and to make the broader population of men more comfortable about taking on an active role in pushing back against sexual violence. 

​When the government fails to enact new laws or protections, there are still other avenues to pursue, such as pressuring businesses, associations and other institutions who can set the standard for their employees and members to live up to. "I would never say give up on the government doing what we elected them to do, but I would say we need to look at other institutions to bring about change."

Hill said she often fields a common question - whether she would again sit at the table before the Senate Judiciary Committee and testify during Thomas's confirmation hearing. 

"The answer is always yes," Hill said. "This is not the life I thought I was going to have, but at this point in my life, to use the words of [the late U.S. Rep.] Shirley Chisholm, that I am, was and always will be a catalyst for change. And with your help, I will continue to make sure that I do everything in my power to make that change happen."

Owen Covington,
1/10/2019 7:15 PM