March 28, 2019 — Professor and civil rights activist Anita Hill said Tuesday at the University of Houston Law Center that the public has a responsibility to embrace the #MeToo movement, and must confront sexual misconduct wherever it exists in society.
“We have to believe the harm of this abuse is real,” Hill said. “There are no bystanders. Use what power you have to change policy or you have become complicit. We need to understand that these are not personnel matters because everyone has a stake in change.”
Hill participated in a “fireside chat” with Law Center Professor Michael A. Olivas as part of the Spring 2019 Dean's Distinguished Speaker Series. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law & Governance.
Hill is professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She teaches courses on gender, race, social policy and legal history. She is of counsel at Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll and chair of the Commission to Eliminate Sexual Harrassment and Advance Equality in the Workplace.
She said nearly every industry in the country should create commissions with policymaking power and develop codes of conduct and other protocols to combat sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.
"This is not just an issue for A-list actors," Hill said. "This issue is housed in the entertainment industry, but there are lessons to be learned all over. Especially when the core of the issue is the abuse of power.“
Hill was thrust into the national spotlight in 1991 during the televised confirmation hearing for now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She testified of repeated sexual harassment while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the EEOC.
Parallels were drawn between Thomas' hearing and the polarized confirmation process of U.S. Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
After Kavanaugh's nomination, Palo Alto University Professor of Psychology Dr. Christine Blasey Ford brought forth an allegation that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a house party when the two were in high school. The Senate Judiciary Committee held public hearings on the accusation, where Ford and Kavanaugh testified, prompting an unprecedented national debate on the topic. Kavanaugh was confirmed and assumed office on Oct. 6.
Hill said there should have been less of a focus on Blasey Ford’s demeanor during her testimony and more on Kavanaugh's qualifications.
"We have to understand that people who experience abuse are all going to respond differently," Hill said. "We have to accept that some of us are going to cry, some of us are going to be stoic and less emotional, and some of us are not going to remember exactly what happened. That's the nature of trauma and the nature of being human.
"In theory, a confirmation hearing is about the character and fitness of an individual to serve on the highest court in the country," Hill said. "If we all ask ourselves based on his performance whether he met the minimal standards of character, fitness or decision-making on the highest court in the land, I would honestly say absolutely not."
Hill also remarked on the potential presidential candidacy of former vice president Joe Biden, who was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of Hill's testimony.
"I'm well aware that a lot of people think that he mishandled the hearings in 1991," Hill said. “He's going to have to respond to those criticisms, and show how he's changed and that he can be trusted to protect victims and survivors. We should be asking these questions of all of our candidates. When you look at the numbers — one in five women in colleges will experience sexual assault — this is a public crisis."
A brief question-and-answer session with Law Center students and audience members followed Hill's discussion with Olivas. A student asked Hill what advice she would give to women minorities entering the legal profession.
"Really know the organization that you're going into," Hill said. "There's no workplace that's perfect, but know what your opportunities are. Find out if there are processes in place to address lack of opportunity."
The lecture was co-sponsored by Houston Public Media.