Friday, October 14, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Anita Hill's Senate testimony about Clarence Thomas

Twenty years ago this month, Anita Hill, then a 35-year-old law professor, appeared before a Senate committee considering the confirmation of nominee Clarence Thomas as a U.S. Supreme Court justice and ignited a firestorm that still smolders today: She accused the nominee of sexual harrassment in formal testimony, describing situations in which they worked together while Thomas headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the very government body intended to work against workplace harrassment and discrimination.

The hearing was highly charged from the outset. It was an unusual second confirmation hearing, forced by news reports about the allegations, which had been ignored by the committee in its first review of Thomas. Carried live by major television networks all over the world, the hearings brought sexual harrassment issues out into the open as never before.

Early in her testimony, she introduced not just the start of the harrassment, but the difficulty she experienced in speaking about it:
After approximately 3 months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next and telling the world about it are the two most difficult things, experiences of my life. It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and a number of sleepless nights that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends.
Speaking about the issue came up again at the end of her opening statement as well:
It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. It took no initiative to inform anyone. I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.

Anita Hill's statement and testimony brought a new women's topic out in the open and put it on the table, with lasting impact. NPR notes that EEOC sexual harrassment cases climbed in the years following the hearing, and that more women ran for and were elected to the Senate than ever, prompted by the frank discussion of a common but underground problem:
Before the hearings, women didn't talk about their harassment experiences. Often, they were embarrassed and blamed themselves, says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics' Center for American Women and Politics. There "was a beast out there," Mandel says. "But it was invisible and it hadn't been named." According to University of Colorado Law Professor Melissa Hart, "the hearings certainly brought this issue into the public eye, and people started being willing to say, 'This happened to me.'"
The backlash against her began almost immediately. Thomas called the testimony and the hearing a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves," and the committee chair, then-Senator Joe Biden, chose not to call witnesses to appear who might corroborate Hill's account. Here's what you can learn from this famous statement:
  • Difficult topics make the most powerful content: As I note in my essay on finding your voice as a speaker, you'll have especially compelling and riveting content if you can bring yourself to speak about the topics you find most difficult to discuss. This testimony proves that tenet. Hill's testimony riveted television viewers and spurred intense debate and discussion, particularly because sexual harrassment is so often not discussed publicly--something on which harrassers rely.
  • Sharing your difficulty in speaking can be important to your credibility, especially for women: While I often coach nervous speakers to avoid sharing their nervousness with the audience, in this case, Hill needed to establish her credibility and her motive in coming forward, in order to connect with not only the committee, but the audience watching on television. Mentioning that she did not seek to testify but was asked to do so, that she found it difficult and painful, and that she had not even informed anyone officially all helped answer questions that would otherwise have immediately been raised. Even with these points made, the backlash against her accusations was swift and angry in many quarters.
  • Simple language is best to convey complex issues: Hill is a learned and accomplished attorney, but this testimony is notable in the simplicity of its language--a quality that helped her frame the issue and the episodes she wanted to describe clearly, leaving no room for confusion.
Thomas was confirmed and serves today on the court; Hill is now a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University. You can see the transcript of Anita Hill's famous testimony here, and read an interview from last month in which she reflects on the testimony and what followed. I've included the video of her opening statement below. What do you think of this famous speech? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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