She discussed the history of civil rights legislation, starting with the President John F. Kennedy’s plan to enforce civil rights through a combination of lawyers, federal agencies and even tax laws that led to the effective pursuit of civil rights and social justice as a matter of public policy. But executive leadership on civil rights changed in recent decades, particularly with President Ronald Reagan, who she noted stopped supporting prior IRS policy that prohibited segregated universities from receiving tax-exempt status.
Hill also discussed how civil rights cases, previously focused almost exclusively on race, began to expand to issues of gender and take the form of class action suits.
She highlighted the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1991, which had been stalled in Congress for years and which President George H.W. Bush had threatened to veto but eventually passed in November 1991—barely a month after the infamous Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings that catapulted Hill into the spotlight.
“Until this legislation passed, women who filed lawsuits for workplace sexual harassment could only recover a certain amount in damages, regardless of how much they had incurred,” she said, adding, “At the time nine out of ten women surveyed said they experienced sexual harassment, but few, if any, knew there was anything illegal about it.”
She was asked by students during the question and answer session about how she keeps working on these emotionally draining issues and staying grounded.
“If you commit yourself to social justice, there are really no breaks,” she said. “You’ve got to surround yourself with people who are warriors along with you, who care about these issues too. If you ever leave this work, your desire to fix these issues will not go away. Someone else will pick up the work you leave behind, probably someone you’re trying to support right now. I say that not to guilt you, but to remind you of how important you are.”