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Social Movement, Social Impact, and the Erasure of Black Women

On January 10, 2019 we had the pleasure to attend the Martin Luther King Lecture commemorative address hosted by Elon University. The keynote speaker was Professor Anita Hill. The topic of her talk was “From Social Movement to Social Impact”.

Of course, a program of this magnitude draws out a variety of people from White women in pink pussy hats, to an older White woman rudely yelling in the middle of Professor Hill’s speech for her to speak up, to three members of a male Elon sports team stating “it’s a program about sexual assault. That’s why it’s all women.” and chuckling. If you are not sure why any of these things are problematic do some research and soul searching. Despite these blood boiling distractions, Professor Anita Hill delivered a remarkable speech that taught us the importance of history and intersectionality.

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Angela Peoples holding sign (Kevin Banatte)

 

As over 600 people filled the gymnasium we waited patiently yet eager to see Anita Hill. For an hour she taught us about the history of sexual violence and intersectional discrimination. She expressed that in the 60s and 70s most women were silent about sexual violence because they didn’t know that they could report it and the women who did report it were mostly Black. Like most other movements, sexual harassment laws were built on the trauma and battles of Black women. She said the names of several Black women including Diane Williams, Sandra Bundy, Michelle Vinson, and Paulette Barnes.  Their reports led to several landmark sexual harassment lawsuits, but their contributions have gone unmentioned in the modern women’s movements. Professor Anita Hill stated that in order for us to move forward, it is important for us to “embrace our history and make it intersectional and inclusive” which includes saying the name of these women.

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Photo Courtesy of Kennedy Dickerson

She mentioned two major threats to our progression from social movement to social impact:

  1. The US has a history of denying and erasing sexual violence. This is evident in the deliberate erasure of reports of sexual violence by colleges and universities to the limited amount of data collected on sexual violence by the government. Professor Hill mentioned that in the 70s Redbook magazine was the only source that collected data on sexual harassment in the workplace because it wasn’t seen as worthy of academic research or an issue of the public at large. According to Redbook, 9 out of every 10 women reported sexual harassment in the workplace.
  2. We still have a government who replicates the mistakes of the past when they have a chance to do better.  Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, data on sexual assault has been removed from the White House website including the erasure of the LGBT content. The government is no longer collecting data on sexual violence and assault because it’s not seen as significant to this administration. This is evident in their talks to dismantle the White House Council on Women and Girls. 

“If we don’t have public officials that care they are destined to make policies that address their lack of concern.”–Anita Hill

In closing, she provided us with a few ways to progress social impact.

  1.  Unlike the male sport team that giggled at the thought of men attending a seminar on sexual violence, sexual violence is not just a women’s issue. We need to include men in the movement. The stories of sexual violence, especially among heterosexual men, often go unheard.  Professor Hill encouraged us to find ways to engage the 1 in 6 men who have experienced sexual assault and provide safe spaces for them to talk about it.
  2. We need to embrace our history, eliminate erasure of Black women, and make the movement intersectional and inclusive. Unfortunately, many people in our generation did not learn the history of Anita Hill until the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Why is it that a story of a Black woman’s bravery and the backlash she received after the hearing that was shown on live TV was not taught? Why have Black women continued to lead movements and report sexual violence yet their stories are silenced and erased? We need to know the stories of Sandra Bundy, Michelle Vincent, Paulie Murray, and Paulette Barnes to illuminate the long history of sexual violence in the US. We need to have intersectional feminism that focuses on the rights of all women and not just White cis women.

“Women and girls are entitled to work, be educated and live free of sexual violence”–Anita Hill

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