How Anita Hill Woke a Generation of Feminists
Her 1991 testimony was a bombshell in the lives of women everywhere.
Close your eyes. Can you remember what you were doing in October of 1991? Zoom in on the crisp fall days of the Senate hearings when Anita Hill stood up and told her truth. Can you see it?
I can. I was a senior at Yale, and I had a very cute boyfriend whom I berated constantly for using sexist, homophobic language — like calling a guy who wouldn’t stand up to hroois girlfriend a pussy or a fag. He was a very nice young man from a well-known activist family that had fought for civil rights for generations. He said he was talking like one of the guys, and that I was blowing things out of proportion.
I wasn’t having it. I had taken bell hooks’ class the semester before. Had grown up crawling around the Ms. magazine offices and spent summers at my godmother Gloria Steinem’s house. My mother was one of the most visible black feminists in the world. All of which meant that the boyfriend and I had some lovely discussions about Rousseau and the Enlightenment over ramen at my tiny off-campus apartment, but we almost came to blows over what I found to be his unfathomable utterances of patriarchal subterfuge.
And there was more, much more, happening that fall. The shocking footage of Rodney King being beaten mercilessly by the Los Angeles Police Department was viral before any of us even had email. George H.W. Bush was after Roe v. Wade, restricting access to reproductive choice for women and families — one law, one county, one clinic at a time.
In other news, my generation was marked with a giant X that, we were told repeatedly, stood for unengaged, apathetic, self-absorbed children of Reaganomics, dilettantes who only wanted to make a ton of money. Newsweek screamed that feminism was dead, and the civil rights movement was, too. The pundits opined that this generation without a name had moved on from the equality game. Our parents may have marched, but we were going to business school.
But the hype never rang true to me. My friends and I were the opposite of apathetic. We were consumed. Van Jones and I argued on street corners in New Haven, Conn., about whether it was more effective to work for change within the corridors of power and privilege or outside of them. A brilliant law student I dated for a bit introduced me to KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions — and their recycled slogan: By Any Means Necessary. After dinner we talked about how to apply the missive to build and control black media outlets.
My friends and I walked down the street listening to Tracy Chapman sing “Talking ‘Bout a Revolution” on our Walkmans with tears streaming down our faces. U2’s anthem to Dr. King, “Pride,” blared on the quad. I stayed up all night talking with a dear friend about starting an ACT UP chapter on campus in response to Bush’s refusal to mention AIDS at a point when thousands were dying of the disease. Two black women at my university attempted suicide, and we demanded a more substantive response from the administration to the high rates of depression among women of color on campus.
And we started a magazine for “people of color,” a term that was fresh to our ears at the time, in hopes of bringing all the isolated groups together — African Americans, West Indians, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, even the Chinese dissidents given asylum in our hallowed halls. Wasn’t it a matter of those with power and those without? Wouldn’t we stand a better chance if we joined together?
Contrary to the media’s assessment, my tribe of Gen Xers was forging the language of coalition politics — now known in academia as intersectionality theory — by discussing the constructs of race, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status, and how these identities were used to categorize and divide us. Our understanding that the world needed to shift in response to the overlapping oppressions and suppression of marginalized people was at the core of our personal and intellectual lives.
But it wasn’t until the fall before my graduation that we got our chance to test the baby we were incubating. It wasn’t until Hill spoke up and revealed the ongoing discrimination, the still-yawning chasm between powerful and powerless, that we found a place to enter the political fray and share our passion for change.
Ten years later, when the twin towers were struck, students at my alma mater sat together before large screens and absorbed the shock collectively. But when Hill stood up and said that Clarence Thomas had repeatedly made lewd, offensive, degrading comments to her, there was no huge television for us to watch. There was no Google to constantly refresh on the subject.
We heard about the hearings from our friends who had televisions, who read the newspapers — all of them — every day. I heard about them from friends in the movement, women of all ages and backgrounds who were in New York and Washington — ground zero, so to speak — who called to give me updates and ask for my response.
Which I gave. Stridently. Informally, in radio interviews, and formally in an article for Ms. magazine called “Becoming the Third Wave,” both an ode to Hill and a manifesto for a new generation of activists. In addition to other exhortations, I suggested that we not sleep with men who did not respect us. I declared that I was not a postfeminist feminist, but the Third Wave. In other words, I said, no, the fight wasn’t over. The next curl was just about to crash onto the shore.
Hill’s courage made me write those words. And those words sparked letters from hundreds of young women who concurred. They were the Third Wave, too, they said, and what were we going to do about it?
If the history were known, I could simply say that the rest was history. But when the people at the center of the history are black, or women, or gay, or poor or all of the above, this is often impossible. So I won’t say the rest is history, because it isn’t, but it is out there on Google: the New York Times statement by African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, the sparking of the national LGBT movement called ACT UP and the tremendous outpouring of activism of all kinds in the early ’90s — from local, direct-action campaigns to the formation of progressive PACs and wealth-redistribution plans in the guise of 501(c)(3)s. That history is out there because Hill resisted erasure. She made sure her story was on the record, and that encouraged so many of us to do the same.
As for me, I graduated and, with a diverse group of other deeply motivated Gen Xers, founded Third Wave, a nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment of girls ages 15-30, then a completely underserved demographic within the philanthropic and advocacy worlds. Twenty years later, thanks to Hill, who supported our very first voter registration in inner cities and spoke to our intrepid team along the way, Third Wave has given millions of dollars to help young women make meaningful change in their lives and communities.
Thanks to Hill, a new generation of feminists and social-change agents were given their moment to shine, and many have been going strong ever since. While Hill has gone on to produce brilliant scholarship and create a life very separate from those hearings, many continue to draw upon the energy of her strength in those moments. We remember what she wore when she stood up to pledge to tell the truth, but most of all, we remember what she said.