“I can’t believe I’m being honored for a lifetime leadership award—I really do feel like I’m just getting started,” Anita Hill told a fashion-packed room at the Diane von Furstenberg Awards on Thursday night, drawing cheers.
At the glitzy event in the Brooklyn Museum, where DVF-clad celebrities and activists mingled among sprigs of cherry blossoms, white leather sofas, and pink peony bouquets, Hill gave a moving speech about her past and future.
After accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment back in 1991, she recalled, “The pundits said no woman would ever come forward to testify again. Many of the pundits blamed me, saying I had set back the movement.”
But something else happened too: She started receiving scores of letters of support from women. One came from a 78-year-old retired band teacher in Oregon. “She said to me, ‘There will be waves of women coming after you.’ I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.”
Then the waves came. Women began sharing their stories with families instead of keeping quiet, she said. They ran for office. They reported sexual harassment at work. They launched the #MeToo movement. “The waves will continue,” she said. “And so will I.”
Hill, who is now a professor of social policy, law, and gender studies at Brandeis University, told the audience, “I stay in it because of people like you—I stay in it because I feel your support. I stay in it because I know that we can make a change. It all begins with individual commitment.”
Katy Perry, who also picked up an award at the event, echoed that sentiment, saying, “We must always remember that words are nothing without action.”
She also joked, “I’m nervous because my Spanx shorts have rolled all the way up,” drawing laughs from the crowd as she wriggled in her geometric-print DVF dress.
Gloria Steinem spoke at the event as well, after von Furstenberg introduced her as “the goddess of feminism” and “the most glamorous woman I have ever met.”
Steinem joked that after such an introduction, “There’s no way to follow myself.”
Steinem, in turn, introduced Hill, saying, “The person I’m introducing is my favorite word: fan-f***ing-tastic.”
Nadia Murad, an advocate for survivors of genocide and sexual violence and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, received an award for her work as well. A member of the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority, Murad survived an abduction by ISIS after the terrorist group attacked her homeland in northern Iraq.
Susan Burton was recognized for founding a group that helps people break the cycle of incarceration, which she found herself embroiled in after a series of traumas, including a childhood rape and later, the loss of her five-year-old son when an off-duty policeman ran over him, sending her spiraling into depression, drugs, and alcohol. Her organization, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, provides resources such as housing, legal services, and community organizing.
After being introduced by actress Julia Stiles, Burton said, “I think about the life I’ve been through and I think, Wow. But I’m here tonight. I never thought I’d be here on Diane von Furstenberg’s stage. I feel power bouncing off the walls.”
Hadeel Mustafa Anabtawi won an award for her work in empowering girls around the world. She’s the founder of The Alchemist Lab, a center that fills gaps in the educational system, helping underserved kids access schooling and learn skills that will help them carve out a promising future.
Von Furstenberg spoke fondly of the award winners at the event, as well as at the Women in the World Summit earlier in the day. She praised the power of women, and shared the phenomenal story of how her mother managed to give birth to her after surviving the Nazi concentration camps. “These women have character,” she said. “Character is the only thing we have total control over.”
Watch Diane von Furstenberg interviewed by Kate Bolduan at the 2019 Women in the World summit:
Additional reporting by Gloria Teal.