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Anita Hill, Gbowee Speak of Home, Conquering Fear

Friday, October 21, 2011

Anita Hill and Liberia's Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee prevailed in very different historic confrontations. But this week they expressed a similar longing for home. And both were asked about how they'd faced down fear.

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Anita Hill and Liberia's Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee prevailed in very different historic confrontations. But this week they expressed a similar longing for home. And both were asked about how they'd faced down fear.



NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Two female newsmakers this week addressed different Manhattan audiences in apparently disconnected appearances. Neither one mentioned the other.

But their coincidental appearances created a stereo-effect: Battle-weary women longing for home and onlookers who wondered how they had conquered the fears of their separate, but equally searing historic confrontations.

Anita Hill drew a crowd Oct. 15 of 1,800 or more as the featured speaker at a day-long conference at Hunter College commemorating the 20th anniversary of her Senate testimony on Clarence Thomas's fitness to be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. In Hill's latest book, "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home," she steps back from the issue of sexual harassment and considers how U.S. women, particularly women of color, find a place where they feel they belong.

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At a gathering for press two days later, on Oct. 17, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee from Liberia talked about the pluses and minuses of being given the prize, but also expressed a desire to go home.

Gbowee and her movement of Muslim and Christian women peacefully and forcefully resisted the Liberian armed conflict that had raged for 14 years. The movement is the subject of a documentary, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." Gbowee credits her receipt of the Nobel to the documentary.

The Hunter College conference, "Sex Power and Speaking the Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later," commemorated the 1991 Thomas confirmation hearings. At the time, Hill told the packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that Thomas had consistently sexually harassed her when Thomas was Hill's boss at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was forcefully cross-examined by committee members and polls indicated that relatively few Americans believed her allegations.

Hill's treatment angered many female voters and is credited with helping to galvanize the election results of 1992, known as the Year of the Woman. Four women that year won Senate seats. They joined Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Democrat Barbara Mikulski and tripled women's presence in the U.S. senate.

Since then, the numbers of female U.S. senators has risen more slowly, to the current 17.

Family History Traced

Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, author and frequent contributor to The Nation, interviewed Hill, who traced her family's history from being property to owning property.

Hill's grandfather was a slave and became a landowner in Arkansas after the Civil War.

With a rise in lynching there, he moved his family from Arkansas to an Oklahoma farm. Hill grew up on a nearby farm, the youngest of 13 children. Her mother encouraged her to leave home and attend Oklahoma State University by arranging a gift of two Samsonite suitcases from a well-traveled family friend. Hill carried them proudly, even though they were hand-me-downs embellished with another woman's initials.

When it was time for her to leave home again, this time for Yale Law School, her mother purchased a new matching set of suitcases using her Green Stamps, also Samsonite--this time complete with Hill's initials.

Hill, now a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., recounted how she lost her "home" after being pressured to leave her post as a tenured faculty member at Oklahoma Law School and continuing threats of violence.

She is now tracing the loss of "home" that African American women have experienced throughout U.S. history up to the current mortgage crisis. A home provides refuge, financial security and expression, she says. Home is where one feels a sense of belonging, of being welcomed. Throughout U.S. history, from slavery to the Great Migration north in the 1900s, African Americans, particularly women, have been taken from their homes, pushed from their homes or cheated out of their homes.

"So far, the collapse of the housing market--in the chaos--few have spoken about the impact on women, especially women of color," she said. She called on the White House Council for Women and Girls to take on the housing crisis as a racial and a gender issue.

"We need a comprehensive approach. It's not a matter of renegotiating mortgages," she said.

During the question-and-answer session, one member of the audience apologized for asking a personal question, while choking back emotion.

"How do you deal with the fear?" she asked.

Hill leaned forward to single out the speaker with her gaze, saying that the events that made her feel fear became less powerful when she told herself, "I did the right thing."

Missing Home

At the press briefing, Gbowee was resplendent in native Liberian dress and a head-wrap, and she made clear that she was uneasy about her new status as Nobel Laureate.

"I want to go home," she said. Home for Gbowee might mean the time before she became a Nobel Laureate and was given a driver and waived through customs, invited to use the V.I.P. lounge at the airport. Home also might mean continuing her work throughout Liberia.

"I told the driver I would drive myself," Gbowee said. "And he said ma'am, you goin' to cause me to lose my job." She kept the driver.

She added that when she entered the country as a V.I.P., her luggage was handled for her, but if she entered Liberia as an ordinary citizen and went through customs, five men would carry her bags and she would give a dollar to each one. She prefers to enter Liberia through customs.

She predicted that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the only female president on the continent of Africa, will win the run-off for president and serve another six-year term. Gbowee has endorsed Sirleaf and it is expected the two will continue to work closely on the next stages of Liberia's recovery from the war.

Gbowee also made it clear that when she returned from Oslo, Norway, where she will accept the prize, she plans to begin work on a process of national conversation of reconciliation.

"I will use this prize as a platform," Gbowee said. "We haven't had time to do it until now. And we must use our own process, not one imported."

An audience member asked Gbowee how she dealt with fear during her movement's daily demonstrations.

"The war started when I was 17. I saw my first dead body and I will never forget it. When I was 31, I was jumping over dead bodies without thinking twice. You become immune to fear. We reached a breaking point; we snapped," she said.

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Rita Henley Jensen is editor in chief and founder of Women's eNews.