By: Kelsey Neubauer
On Feb. 23, I walked into the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library slightly out of breath. I had run over to the library after recieving an email telling me my files would be available today.
Inside, the coat checker gave me a clear bag, into which I had to put my notebook, ID and pencil, and directed me through the colossal hall to where I was supposed to go.
I was here to look through the archives of the Woman’s Action Coalition, a national feminist activist organization that began in New York in 1992. That was a year after Anita Hill, a black female lawyer, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harrassed her. Though Thomas was confirmed, a record numbers of women were elected to Congress in 1992, which was dubbed “Year of the Woman.”
I come here looking to understand impact Hill’s testimony had on the women’s rights movement in the years that followed her testimony. In these boxes were the records of many of the coalition’s actions during this time.
I was hyper-aware of the echo of my clicking heels on the Welsh quarry tiles in the silent room as I walked through the museum-like library. I actively avoided the glances of readers who were clearly annoyed at my footsteps and tried to move faster, but only made the noise worse.
Finally, I reached the archives. I stood at the door, completely confused as to what to do next. Finally, a man sitting at a desk to my right came over to me.
“Is this your first time here?” the man asked.
“Yes,” I replied in my quietest whisper. “I was told I could come in today.”
Eventually, he brought out one of the boxes.
I spent that first day familiarizing myself with the Women Action Coalition. The box gave me a history lesson on how a group of New York women helped lead a movement around the country.
I pulled out a packet with names and numbers for each of the women on the coalition and wrote down the information for each for over an hour. Time seemed to warp. Maybe it was the nature of the windowless, silent room that made two and a half-hours feel like a few minutes.
The day transformed my feelings about my project as well. Before, I felt totally unqualified to tell the story I had chosen. I was paralyzed by it. I began the day hoping to check an assignment off a box and I left in love with the story I was telling. The Monday that followed, I came in and the anxiety I had felt a few days earlier had subsided.
I read through every file in the box that told of WAC’s relationship with historical events: Passage of the National Stalker Reduction Act of 1993, the Freedom Summer of 1992, the Los Angeles Rebellion – all milestones in the women’s rights movement of the 1990s.
Every event had one thing in common: all of them were said to have been inspired, in part, by Anita Hill’s testimony.
The case I spent the most time looking at was one where a U.N. staffer said she was sexually harassed. The United Nations failed to investigate the claims properly, and there was subsequent blowback from WAC and others, according to news articles describing the incident in the folder.
“Our nation was galvanized by the Clarence Thomas hearings and the shameful treatment of Anita Hill by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee,” a March 1993 letter from the coalition to the United Nations read. “We have not forgotten those hearings, the nation is striving to change that picture. Are you?”
“WAC is watching. We will take action,” it warned in the statement.
The action of the coalition in the years that followed showed collective sounds of voices breaking through silence to try to change the way the country dealt with sex-based harassment. The archives told the untold story of the changemakers themselves.
It was the shift that they had created that led me here. In their records lies the story of how and why the world changed from the Anita Hill testimony to the Christine Blasey Ford testimony.