COLUMBIA — The attendees couldn't be together physically this year, but the spirit of solidarity was still there.
Nearly 200 people gathered online Thursday night for the 29th I Believe Anita Hill Party, thought to be one of the longest-running women's networking events in the nation. Among other presenters, this year's version of the event featured a pre-recorded video address from Hill.
The Columbia-based party — typically held in-person but pushed online this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic — is named for the attorney and professor who was vigorously grilled by an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas' U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 over her sexual harassment allegations against the judge.
Many people, including a group of women in Columbia, were taken aback by the harsh treatment of Hill during that confirmation, and the following year began a remembrance of the hearings, a tradition that has continued for nearly three decades.
“It started when, back in 1991, many people watched the hearings, and became enraged at the treatment (of Hill)," Barbara Rackes, a longtime co-host and key organizer for the annual party, told The Post and Courier. “Watching Professor Hill being grilled by that all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee made women here in South Carolina furious, the way she was being treated. So, they vowed it would not be forgotten.
“Until it is history, meaning gone history, there will be a reason to continue to talk about sexual harassment.”
Hill has attended the party named for her in Columbia on three occasions in the past and has been invited back for next year's 30th edition. In a 10-minute video message at Thursday's event, she lauded the South Carolina gathering for the community it has built and how it has encouraged women to come forward and report incidents of sexual harassment.
"You have encouraged many, many women, maybe even more than you know, to be their true, authentic selves, and to move in the world more freely, with more power, and a stronger sense of their possibilities," Hill said. "I’m happy to be a part of that and to support that. I hope you know what you’ve done for so many.”
With the spread of COVID-19, many annual events across Columbia and the state have been canceled or pushed back to 2021. Organizers debated for months on whether to hold the Anita Hill Party, and ultimately decided in July to make it an online event, Rackes said.
Organizers simply couldn't bring themselves to break the continuity, she noted.
“We thought, if we don’t do it for the 29th (anniversary), we’ll be breaking a sequence we possibly won’t be able to put back together," said Rackes, a longtime Columbia businesswoman. "If you don't have the 29th celebration in 2020, you’ve just kind of messed up the longest running sequential remembrance of the Anita Hill (hearings) in the country, possibly the world.”
Thursday's event seemed timely, coming in the same week as the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. The conservative judge was nominated for the court by President Donald Trump following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, long a champion of progressive ideals.
The timing of the Anita Hill event and the Barrett hearings was simply coincidental, Rackes noted.
Much of Thursday's event focused on stamping out sexual harassment in the workplace.
Women who bring forward complaints of sexual harassment today have a greater level of support from networks of survivors than they did in the past, Hill said.
"Thirty years ago, when people came forward in their lawsuits, they came forward as individuals," Hill said. "Sometimes they came forward in class action lawsuits. But there was not the kind of system of survivors who could understand their feelings and understand the, sometimes, pain and horror of going through a lawsuit.
"That’s why today is so important. Today we know more."
Hill has said she will vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in this year's presidential election even though he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas confirmation.
The I Believe Anita Hill Party was years ahead of other anti-harassment efforts, such as the #MeToo movement, Hill noted.
“You were ahead of the curve, and the world after the #MeToo movement is just catching up to you," Hill said. "Because of you, because of your work, because of your years of dedication and commitment, there will be more reporting. There will be some (legal) settling. There will be some lawsuits. And certainly there will be survival."