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(This piece was also written by Monali Sheth)

Feminist activist Gloria Steinem has remarked that “[i]gnorance is the root of oppression.”  So it is important that Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization working for women and girls, acknowledges this twentieth anniversary of the testimony of Anita Hill before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about sexual harassment she experienced from then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Here's recent history our children need to know:  In 1991, Hill was a 35-year old lawyer who had worked for Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  As a key witness at his nomination hearings, she accused Thomas of making sexual advances and offensive statements while he was her supervisor.  Thomas denied the accusations, and the controversy gripped the country.  While some accused Hill of lying to derail the nomination of a conservative justice, many of us old enough to have watched the hearings remember that we believed Anita Hill.  She was grace under fire.  She had nothing to gain.  Her claims were not only plausible; they mirrored the experience of thousands of women in the American workplace.

While Thomas was ultimately confirmed to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52-48, Anita Hill’s act of speaking out against sexual harassment has proven to be a watershed moment for many women across different generations.  Women across the country, angered by the treatment of Hill by many of the 10 male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed their frustration at the polls in 1992.  In what became known as “The Year of the Woman,” four new women were elected to the U.S. Senate, more than in any previous decade.  Those elected included California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), the Senate’s first African-American woman.  Suddenly, legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which had difficulty gaining traction when it was first introduced in 1990, found overwhelming support in both the House and Senate and sailed to passage in 1994.

Anita Hill’s ability to galvanize the women’s movement was in full force at a conference co-sponsored by ERA at Hunter College in New York City last month -- “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later.”  The conference brought together Hill, those close to her during her Senate ordeal, moms, pioneers of the women’s movement, cutting-edge advocates, academics, and the newest generation of feminists.  Speakers included Yale Law Professor Judith Resnick and Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, movement icons Catharine MacKinnon and Gloria Steinem, advocates such as Joanne Smith from Girls for Gender Equity and domestic worker organizer Ai-Jen Poo, and compelling academics including Kimberle Crenshaw from UCLA Law School and Melissa Harris-Perry from Tulane University.  The conference was energized by the next generation of women advocates, from feminist teen bloggers who created the “FBomb” to young women tackling street harassment through an organization called “Hollaback!”  This cross-generational conference cast a spotlight on the vast contributions of Hill’s testimony to advancing women’s rights and drawing attention to sexual harassment in work, school and on the streets at a national level.

For some of us, the face of Anita Hill testifying before a panel of men about sexual harassment she endured by a Supreme Court nominee feels like yesterday.  While Hill’s courage in stepping forward with her story raised awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace, it certainly did not end it.

Unfortunately, 20 years later, there are many new faces of Anita Hill -- women who are far less privileged than Hill was and for whom sexual assault is, quite simply, a term of employment.  Callers to ERA’s national, toll-free advice and counseling hotline complain of sexual harassment in work and schools more than any other form of mistreatment.  ERA represents women janitors and restaurant workers who have been sexually assaulted by their supervisors.  Each day, we counsel women farmworkers, retail workers, financial planners, firefighters, teachers, factory workers, doctors, scientists, tradeswomen, lawyers, hotel workers and students not yet in their teens who experience sexual harassment, day in and day out.

Immigrant women workers are most vulnerable to sexual harassment.  “Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry,” a report recently issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center, noted that 80% of the Mexican immigrant women surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment while working in the fields. That compares to roughly half of all women in the U.S. workforce who say they have experienced at least one incident.  This country’s two and half million female domestic workers (many of whom are immigrant women) similarly face repeated and severe sexual harassment without recourse because they are excluded from most labor protections. Poverty, cultural constraints, language barriers, undocumented status, fear, shame, lack of information about their rights, and a dearth of resources to assist them have made it incredibly challenging for these women to come forward to speak up about the sexual harassment and sexual assault that they suffer on the job.

The twentieth anniversary of Hill’s testimony creates a moment of opportunity to seriously reflect on the predicament of the new faces of Anita Hill and implement a plan of action.  We must adopt a holistic preventative and remedial approach for women that prioritizes their safety at work and their need for a job and income security while factoring in vulnerabilities such as language and immigration status.  ERA is forging ahead with this approach.  In addition to pursuing litigation on behalf of women workers who have experienced sexual harassment and/or assault at work, ERA is developing live clinics and Know Your Rights trainings.  ERA is also forming exciting partnerships with organizations, such as San Francisco Women Against Rape and immigrant women’s rights groups, to address the myriad emotional, social and legal issues faced by women who report harassment, including undocumented women workers.  ERA needs your support for this focus of our Marginalized Women Worker Campaign. Click here to learn about how you can help.

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