This article was originally published Sept. 21, 2018 at ForbesWomen.
When I first started pursuing interviews for my book What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?: Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power, I knew I wanted to interview Anita Hill. It was her courageous testimony at the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991 in front of an all-male panel and the unfair, sexist treatment she received during the hearings that inspired a surge of women running for office, which resulted in 1992 being called “The Year of the Woman,” as well as a significant shift in how cases of sexual harassment are addressed in this country.
Since my book was about getting more women into leadership positions, particularly in politics, I knew Professor Hill would have many relevant lessons to offer to women trying to change the system, pursue positions of leadership, and embody important qualities we as women are often conditioned not to model: raising our voices, speaking our truths, being courageous, as well as staying strong and resilient in the face of sexism, scrutiny, criticism and attacks. When I interviewed Hill, speaking to me with such genuine candor, warmth, and wisdom, she offered such valuable, timeless insights on all of these fronts.
Hill’s perspective and experience have suddenly become particularly relevant today with the development of Christine Blasey Ford sharing her own story of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and facing a hearing in front of yet another mostly male committee (4 out of the 21 members of the judiciary committee are female and only 23% of the Senate is female). Already Blasey Ford is facing attacks that have resulted in her and her family having to flee their home. Women are rallying behind her, thanking her for her courage and supporting her right to tell her story in the way that she feels will receive fair treatment and protect her safety.
So as we live through another pivotal moment in the history of our government, I felt it was a fitting time to share five of the most powerful insights I received from Anita Hill, in the hopes that it will inspire and fortify all of us during a time when women’s voices, perspectives, and leadership are critically needed in politics and beyond, now more than ever.
Courage comes from doing what you know is right.
One of the most important things I learned from Anita Hill in my interview was about having the courage to stand up and do what you know is right, even in the face of adversity. Hill told me that her courage to speak up about Clarence Thomas’ behavior came from focusing on the bigger picture and the importance of what it was she was trying to achieve instead of what the negative consequences might be for her personally. She told me:
“When I think about the hearing, what motivated me to do it was bigger than the consequences of doing it. I knew that I had important information about Clarence Thomas, what kind of judge he was going to be, because I knew about his own behavior that really said that he had no respect for the law and that he believed himself to be above the law. In the situation I’m talking about, it happened to be sexual harassment, which carried with it another kind of meaning, in that we’re going to have somebody in a position of ultimate authority, having a role to play in deciding the rights of women and people of color, in cases of discrimination. And knowing that the law was going to be written by and shaped by someone with a disregard for it was what I was looking at. And that was the consequence, and I could have an impact on how that shaped and took place. That was really what motivated me—it just outweighed the consequences.
I think there’s someplace in your conscience that says, ‘If I don’t act, then I will have been a part of something that I don’t want to live with.’ I would have been moving away from something and turning my back on something.”
Be a change maker.
As a pioneer in standing up to sexual harassment, Anita Hill knows all about being an agent of change. Her actions in 1991 sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment, inspiring many women to come forward with their own cases of sexual harassment and abuse, as well as spurring more women to run for office. Here is the powerful advice she offered on being a change maker in your own life:
“Take the tools and the skills and the resources of every kind that you have, and go out, find something that you know is not fair, is not just, and begin to change it. In whatever way you know, in whatever way is appropriate for you, but don’t ignore it. Don’t think it’s somebody else’s job to change it. Confront it in your own way, and make it your job to make change.”
Believe in yourself and stay grounded in your truth.
In the hearings, Hill was subjected to unfair treatment and extreme scrutiny by the judiciary committee. She told me that in order to get through that she had to remain grounded in what she knew to be true:
“So much of the scrutiny was just lies. It was just outright lies, and even on the part of some of the senators, some comments and statements that were made were just not true. So knowing that I knew the truth, that was very helpful, and knowing that the people around me knew the truth, that was also very helpful. I mean, some of the things that they ascribed to me were just so untrue and so unreal that it was disturbing, but it also took away some of the sting because I knew it wasn’t true and I knew that and I had enough people around me who knew who I was and what I am. My biggest concern was that the process was not interested in getting to the truth, and that was the only thing that was risky for me.”
The importance of having more women in politics and leadership positions.
Despite Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas, the Senate voted to confirm him (by a narrow margin of 52-48). Hill told me she believes that if more women had been in the Senate in 1991, the outcome of the hearings would have been different. She expressed to me how important it is to have women’s voices and perspectives as part decision making in politics, as well as all sectors of society:
“I think we’ve had, and we continue to have, this skewed concept of what leadership looks like. Leadership in our minds, unfortunately, has a gender and the gender is male. We see that not only in politics; we see it also in just about every kind of business and different aspects of our lives, even in environments where you are presumed to be very liberal and open to change…. Women will broaden the information that goes into decision making. I think people tend to connect with and bring into their own circles people who are like them, so by bringing in one person, you are more likely to bring additional women voices into the decision-making process, and that’s going to be better for everyone if the perspective is broadened. I think we’ve got so many complex issues that cannot be resolved by looking at them from one perspective. And ultimately, allowing more women in will help make better decisions if, in fact, those women are powerful and in tune with and connected with other women’s voices, and perhaps voices of people who have been left out of the conversation, including people of color.”
The most crucial leadership quality needed today.
When I asked Hill what she felt was the most important quality in a leader today, whether male or female, she offered this insightful response:
“I think that most important is the ability to connect with the problems of people who are not like you—who have been underserved by government historically, who don’t enjoy the privileges that you do. So the ability to really connect with those people and design policies that will include their well-being—with an understanding that as they go, so goes the rest of the country—I think that is important and may be the most critical characteristic of a leader today. Because so often those are the people who are not going to be represented by a lobbyist or a very important vocal donor, so those are the interests that can get lost.”