by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
I want to personally thank you, Anita Hill, for what you did for us twenty years ago. Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. Thank you for your quiet dignity, your eloquence and elegance, your grace under pressure. Thank you for illuminating the complexities of female powerlessness, and for explaining why you didn’t complain when the offense first occurred, and for describing how cowed and coerced a woman can feel when she is hit upon by a man who controls her economic destiny.
Twenty years ago you had the courage to tell the truth and do what women rarely did: Make a scene. Fifty years ago I didn’t.
In the 1960s, when I was a book publishing executive, single, and self-supporting, I once was trapped in an elevator with an important and powerful male journalist whose good offices I depended upon to give favorable coverage to my company’s books. With absolutely no warning, the man suddenly pinned me against the elevator wall, groped my breasts, and shoved a hand under my skirt. Did I press the Emergency button?
Of course not. It would have caused a scene. A scene would have imperiled my career. A scene would have marked me as a prude, a troublemaker, and that grimmest of all characters, A Girl With No Sense of Humor. A scene would have infuriated and embarrassed the man. A scene might have made the newspapers, exposing his crude and thuggish behavior to his wife. In the end, the person who would pay a price for his humiliation would be me. He would bad-mouth me in the industry. He would give my company bad press, which in turn would reflect badly on my work and put my job at risk.
That’s why, instead of screaming and pressing the Emergency button, I giggled while I fought him off. I spewed wise-cracks as I twisted out of his grasp. I tried to keep smiling while frantically stabbing the L button. Finally, the elevator doors opened on the lobby floor and I made a run for the street.
It wasn’t the first or the last time that I escaped an unwanted sexual advance and ended up feeling sullied, scared, cowardly, and somehow at fault. Far worse happened to friends of mine and to hundreds of thousands of working women in even more difficult financial circumstance.
But thanks to you, Anita, we and our daughters and our granddaughters now feel empowered to press the Emergency button and report offensive behavior. Thanks to your brave, frank testimony and your stately comportment in the face of hostile interrogation and vilification by members of the Senate Judiciary committee, we no longer laugh off unwanted sexual advances, we file charges. We no longer protect our attackers from humiliation, we name names; we demand that our employers stand accountable to their published policies against harassment and that the offender be punished. We may still be risking our jobs but more and more of us are telling the truth.
It all started with you, Anita. Today we remember. Today we honor you for what you did. Today we thank you for making a scene – for doing it fearlessly before the eyes of a riveted nation and thus inspiring millions of women to defend their dignity as you did yours.
** And now it’s my pleasure to welcome to the stage, Dorothy Samuels, a member of the Editorial Board of the New York Times, who will moderate the first session.