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Anita Hill reflects on legacy of her 1991 sexual harassment testimony

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TORONTO - It has been more than 20 years since Anita Hill levelled incendiary testimony that would make her an instant icon in the fight for women's rights.

Now, the outspoken American law professor is in the spotlight again, arguing that more must be done to achieve true gender equality.

Hill was in Toronto over the weekend to discuss the lasting impact of accusations she levelled long ago at Clarence Thomas, who was a Supreme Court nominee being vetted by a Senate judiciary hearing in 1991.

The televised testimony proved to be riveting drama for those who tuned in, and catapulted Hill into a reluctant role as a civil rights champion.

Today, she says she has comfortably embraced that responsibility and wants a new generation of women to know the struggles that came before them.

Hill's experiences are detailed in the new documentary "Anita," which screens next weekend in Toronto at HotDocs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival.

"These issues are still important for young women today growing up — people who have come up in a generation since those hearings," Hill said Saturday.

"Violence in all its forms against women is the big issue, if you will. Sexual harassment is a part of what keeps us from achieving true equality. It works on us economically and it works on us in terms of our advancement through the workplace, our sense of belonging in the workplace and the authority that we have in the workplace, regardless of how much we get paid."

"Anita" traces the bewildering onslaught that beset Hill the moment she naively stepped forward to address the all-male Senate committee.

Before a rapt television audience, she was made to recount humiliating encounters with her former boss and endure a nine-hour grilling by politicians who displayed little understanding of sexual harassment.

Thomas was confirmed by the committee and remains a Supreme Court justice.

After the hearing, the documentary reveals Hill was attacked privately for years afterwards — vindictive state politicians pressured Hill's university to fire her, while other critics sent bomb threats to her office and threatening packages to her home.

Hill would have been happy to remain an anonymous law professor the rest of her life, says director Freida Mock, but was forced to become much more, to so many people.

"It was really a story of transformation after the hearings," says Mock, who notes Hill continued the debate with several books and speaking engagements.

"And I think the letters, the thousands and thousands of letters of ordinary Americans, people around the world writing to her ... really had a powerful impact on her."

These days, Hill is at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., but is no longer in the classroom. Her focus is on administration work, where she says she's eager to change the very way students learn.

"It's time for us to think about how we can shape education in its totality," says Hill, whose books include "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home" and her biography, "Speaking Truth to Power."

"Instead of thinking of issues that relate to race and gender as things that are only taught in women's studies departments or ethnic studies departments, one of the things that I would like to see is integration of some of those theories and ideas throughout the curriculum. So that we don't marginalize those voices."

Hill says she continues to find inspiration from strangers who have written to her over the past 20 years. She keeps an estimated 25,000 letters stored in several file cabinets.

"I'm dying to write a book about those letters, the thousands of them, and I bet there are letters from a lot of Canadians as well. I do hear from Canadians a lot and that's always gratifying," says Hill.

"There are many things I need to be doing and I will be doing in the next few years. I'm not done yet."

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