A sign posted at the Oct. 15 I Believe Anita Hill Party in Columbia declared “The Future is Female.”
If the energy and shared sense of urgency in the room that night is an example, that future is coming sooner rather than later.
Hundreds gathered at Central Energy at the BullStreet District for the 28th I Believe Anita Hill Party, which organizers say is one of the longest-running women’s networking events in the nation. This year’s event focused on a number of issues critical to women, including pay equity, political representation, sexual harassment and assault, and reproductive rights, among other topics.
Barbara Rackes, the longtime Columbia businesswoman and founder of South Carolina Women in Leadership, an organization that encourages women to seek out elected and appointed office, is a host of the Anita Hill event. She told Free Times at the Oct. 15 event that, almost three decades into its existence, it remains true to its namesake Anita Hill, the attorney and Brandeis University professor who in 1991 alleged she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, and was subsequently vigorously grilled by an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee during Thomas’ confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“In 1991, Professor Hill was bold enough to step forward and testify before an all-white, all-male Senate judiciary committee that was anything but respectful of her and her statements,” Rackes said. “We watched it on C-Span back then. Women who watched it were infuriated that she was being treated like that. I think we kept watching, hour after hour, and thinking, ‘The tide is going to turn. [Committee members] Joe Biden or Strom Thurmond or somebody is going to say, ‘Enough.’ But it didn’t happen.
“The following year, with Thomas having been put on the court, [Columbia organizers] originated a remembrance [of the Hill hearings]. That remembrance started off small and kept getting a little larger.”
That growth has continued through the years, with the party initially taking place in residential houses in the community and slowly taking on larger and larger venues. Hill has attended three times — 1997, 2011, 2016 — and Rackes says she hopes the professor will attend again in a couple years, when the event hits 30.
Rackes said Hill has become a sort of avatar in the fight for fairness, equal pay and other key women’s initiatives.
“We decided we needed to make Anita Hill more of an icon,” Rackes noted. “Rather than being Anita Hill herself, she is now the call out for sexual harassment and for equity of many kinds. [What she represents] has expanded.”
Businesswoman Heather Bauer also is among the hosts of the Anita Hill gathering. She said women still face the type of harassment Hill alleged against Thomas, and often face skepticism or worse if they come forward.
“This still happens all the time,” Bauer said. “The fact that we have a system where women — and men, but mostly women — aren’t respected and aren’t listened to is ludicrous. To me, it has a lot to do with our current leadership and a lot of our legislation. If you look at South Carolina, we have less than 16 percent women in the [state] Senate and the House. But it flows through the entire country, it’s not just South Carolina.”
Bauer is attempting to increase representation for women in the state Legislature: She is heavily considering a Democratic run for House in District 75, a seat currently held by Republican Rep. Kirkman Finlay.
Democratic state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, who was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018, was among those in attendance at the most recent Anita Hill bash.
She lauded the spirit of the annual movement, emphasizing that more women’s perspectives are needed in the Palmetto State political machine.
“Our voice is so needed in the Legislature and at every level of government,” she said. “I have 15 sexual assault bills pending right now that I’m having a hard time moving, because the committees that they are in front of are predominantly male. By nature of who we are, men don’t have to think about the same things that we do, day in and day out. If we walk somewhere alone at night, we need somebody with us. We always have to keep track of our drinks when we are in a bar. It is constantly running in the background.
“There are different approaches and different thought patterns that we bring to everything that we do that needs to be equally represented in government.”
As in most years, there were a number of men in attendance at the Oct. 15 Anita Hill Party. Richland One school board member Aaron Bishop was among them.
The board member says it is important for men to stand alongside women in the fight for equality.
“The temperament of society that deals with women’s rights, women voting, women in leadership, it’s all critical,” Bishop told Free Times. “Women have a united voice. So, here’s a moment for them to not only have that voice, but to stand in solidarity. The men here are standing with women to let them know that they are supported, they are appreciated and their voices are heard.”