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Scenes from a Reunion

Vivia Chen

October 17, 2011

Gloria_SteinemYou know you're old and cranky when you start getting antsy when you hear the twenty- or even the thirty-somethings talk about feminism.

It may not be fair, but that was my reaction when I attended the "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later" conference this past Saturday at Hunter College in New York.

I should be more sympathetic because it must be hard to share the spotlight with the stalwarts of the feminist movement. Among those who spoke at the conference were Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, Lani Guinier, Kimberle Crenshaw, Catherine MacKinnon, Judith Resnik, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Patricia Williams.

Here are some fascinating tidbits from that day:

1. Lani Guinier confided that she and Clarence Thomas were friends at Yale Law School, where both shared an interest in civil rights work.

2. One of Anita Hill's biggest worries before her appearance at the hearings was what she should wear, remembered Patricia Williams. "What do we have to wear to be believed?" asks Williams. "What does credibility look like?"

3. Though she was on the losing side, MacKinnon clung to the belief that Thomas would ultimately be more progressive. "Most people grow when they go on the Supreme Court," she said, calling Thomas an unusual example of "arrested development."

4. Senator Arlen Specter (one of the 14 members on the all-male Judiciary Committee) ran into Gloria Steinem one day and asked her for advice on what he should do to get women to stop being angry at him for his role in the hearing. "I told him to apologize," said Steinem. "He never did."

5. Joe Biden's role in the hearings still looms large--and not in a good way. As several speakers noted, Biden hurried the proceedings to a vote, thus denying the testimony of other witnesses who would have corroborated Hill's assertions.

And, of course, there was Anita Hill. For those of us who still think of her as that young woman in the stiff royal blue suit 20 years ago, she looked and sounded improbably relaxed now.

What was the most difficult moment in the aftermath of the hearing? Hill said it was the polling that came out right afterward, showing that 70 percent of the public didn't believe her: "I had to go the grocery store and know that seven out of ten ten people thought I had perjured myself."

And what about that famous phone message that she got from Ginny Thomas this year, in which Thomas's wife asked her to apologize for what happened two decades ago?  "I thought it was a prank,"said Hill. Afterward, "I got 500 e-mails from people who thought it was inappropriate, and I started to talk to people, and realized that this [issue] still resonated." As a result, Hill added, she decided to do this conference.

Which brings us back to the Generation Ys and Zs at the conference. I don't mean to sound so down on them, but I had a hard time identifying with aspects of their fight. Some were quite good speakers (but what's with that "up," Valley-girl intonation?), but they lost me from time to time. One spoke about defeating racism, sexism, and heterosexualism--and I had to stop and ask, "Heterosexualism?"

Another young woman was lauded for starting the group Hollaback!--an organization whose goal is to stop street harassment, such as those annoying catcalls some men make at women.

All worthy goals, I'm sure. But somehow after the high drama and high stakes of the Clarence Thomas hearings, I found myself asking, is this where women's rights are now?

Related post: Tell Your Daughter About Anita.

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Photo: Warren K. Leffler/Wikipedia

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Caught the last part of the morning session, the audience Q & A, on C-SPAN radio. It was both fascinating and inspiring. Here is a link to the broadcast:
http://www.c-span.org/Events/Anita-Hill-Speaks-20-Years-Later/10737424714/

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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