In 1991, Anita Hill received a call from an incest survivor following her historic Senate hearings, telling her that her nationally televised testimony had “opened up a whole can of worms.”
Hill, a lawyer and professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University, first opened that can while alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, her former boss and who, despite her blockbuster accounting, made it onto the U.S. Supreme Court.
She has been receiving letters from others who have suffered similarly ever since.
“The letters are about sexual harassment, as my situation was, but they are also about incest and sex trafficking and domestic violence,” Hill told a virtual audience Thursday evening, during an event co-hosted by two organizations at the University of Florida. “The whole can of worms is almost endless when we think about gender-based violence in its totality.”
The ACCENT Speakers Bureau and the UF Women’s Student Association held the event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in 1920 granted white women the right to vote.
“It’s a bittersweet celebration that we have,” Hill said while noting that Native women, African American women and Asian American women remained barred from voting because of Jim Crow-era laws which stayed in effect until the 1960s.
“We do know that even though those women knew that their rights were going to be limited, they were still at the forefront of the suffrage movement – and they were leaders.”
Debra Walker King, a UF English professor and an ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, moderated the 45-minute conversation with Hill. More than 350 people witnessed the event, according to one of the organizers.
Hill drew from her training as a lawyer, her experience in Hollywood advocating for sexual assault survivors, and the recent deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police.
“When we think about Breonna Taylor, when we think about George Floyd,” she said, “you think how fragile these lives were, and how they were lost seemingly for no reason and should still be with us.”
Hill also focused on the pandemic and the fact that far too many people of color and older adults have died because of COVID-19.
“We have to start to look at the threat to our physical being among people of color and other marginalized groups as really a call to account, and to move us forward in this time, even when it’s hard to look,” the professor said.
She also took aim at the Trump’s administration’s recent memorandum prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars for diversity and sensitivity training at the federal level.
“Training lays the groundwork for positive change, for more inclusion,” Hill said. “And it is painful and very scary to some people because in some ways it means that the myths that they have told themselves about inherent inadequacies are just that: myths and lies.”
Afterward, Elizabeth Lossada-Soto, 21, of Ocala, a senior at UF and president of the Women’s Student Association, commended Hill for urging people to vote.
“Dr. Hill realizes the importance of voting and the importance of, as she mentioned in her speech, we need systemic change,” Lossada-Soto said. “As much as we would love to and continue to have grassroots movements, we also need systemic change.”
Liliam Clavijo, 21, of Tampa, a fourth-year political science student, said she found Hill’s support for Democratic presidential nominee Biden saddening. The former vice president was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that conducted the Thomas-Hill hearing and was widely criticized for how she was treated in what became a national spectacle.
“I think it’s sad that our alternatives are so deeply disappointing that we have to support someone who clearly did not support a woman when she needed it the most,” Clavijo said. “It says a lot about our political system that we have to pick a candidate that has not been there in the past for women. It’s really upsetting to me, and it seems like there’s no alternative to it.”
During a Q&A session, Hill was asked about Thomas being invited to co-teach a two-week course on religious clauses of the First Amendment at the UF Levin College of Law.
“I think Clarence Thomas does not have the kind of value to add to the university that a university deserves,” she said. “However, I hope there is an opportunity once that happens to have a community conversation about what it means to have Clarence Thomas on campus, what you think of the content of his commentary, as well as his time spent on the court.”
Clavijo said hosting the Supreme Court justice on campus was shocking to her.
“The fact that we still have Clarence Thomas as a really outright conservative political figure in spite of the fact that Anita Hill put her entire career her entire life on the line to talk about her really debilitating sexual harassment is ridiculous and incredible to me,” Clavijo said.
ACCENT, a bureau of UF student government, paid Hill $30,000 from student activity fees, according to the Independent Florida Alligator.
Owing to the pandemic, it was the fifth virtual event of the year and the first of the semester, and Wolf said the student organization put Hill’s name on a list of potential speakers for an event commemorating the 19th Amendment.
“Nothing, of course, compares to the in-person experience of ACCENT shows, but I feel the way we’ve been doing them virtually has been awesome, and from the students I’ve heard from who have attended our shows, they’ve enjoyed them tremendously as well,” he wrote in an email.
Correction appended: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated ACCENT put on two virtual shows this year. ACCENT put on four virtual shows this summer. This was the first virtual show of fall.