In 2013, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee appointed former Air Force Captain Elizabeth L. Hillman, an expert on sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination in the military, to serve on a panel probing sexual assault in the military.
The panel exposed how little progress had been made since the so-called “Tailhook” scandal of 1991, when Navy and Marine officers assaulted and harassed more than 80 women officers during the symposium in Las Vegas, and then tried to cover it up. The panel found that very little, indeed, had changed over those 22 years, nor has the culture improved since then. According to a Defense Department report released in 2018, reports of sexual assaults in the military increased by 9.7 percent, from 2016 to 2017.
By the time she sat on that panel in 2013, Hillman had left the Air Force and was a provost and academic dean at University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. She heard testimony that left her disgusted.
“Some of the generals were so condescending,” said Hillman, who is now the president of Mills College in Oakland. “On this particular issue, there is only one side to be on. Everyone should want to end sexual assault. I struggled with the dismissiveness I saw in some of them. They were going to protect their military autocracy.”
Her recommendation – that the handling of sexual assault cases be removed from the chain of command and given instead to experienced criminal prosecutors – was ignored. That only strengthened her resolve to become an even stronger advocate for all women survivors of sexual assault.
Hillman is the keynote speaker and one of three women veterans who will receive a California Department of Veterans (CalVet) Trailblazer Award during CalVet’s 2019 Women Veterans Reception Tuesday at Sacramento State in the Student Union. This year’s event, titled “Empowering Women Veterans: Achieving Equality Through Education,” is open to the public and conducted in partnership with the Sacramento State Veterans Success Center and the VetFund Foundation.
Hillman, who in 2016 became the 14th president in the 167-year history of Mills College, earned an electrical engineering degree from Duke University in 1989, through the ROTC program.
“My scholarship commitment included a term of service,” she said. “I went to school before the service.”
She taught history at the Air Force Academy and helped establish its first Sexual Assault Awareness Week. “I started becoming more engaged and outspoken about it,” she said. “I met survivors, talking to people who survived sexual assaults, to cadets who had been harassed.”
Their emotions – their fear, shame, anger, and their stories – made a huge impact upon her. While at the Academy, she worked on her master’s degree, which she received from Penn in 1994. She added her law degree from Yale in 2000, and her Ph.D. in history, also from Yale, a year later.
Hillman clearly established her credentials as an expert in sexual assault and harassment in the military. She’s testified before numerous Congressional committees and subcommittees.
She was an expert witness in federal court, challenging the military’s “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy.
Hillman is a founding member of the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. She also served on a blue-ribbon study group that produced a groundbreaking report on sexual harassment in science, engineering, and medical workplaces. Better working climates, she said, will encourage women to pursue careers in science and engineering, and play a major role in combatting climate change.
Her military and educational backgrounds give her the foundation to help woman and all students move forward.
“I loved teaching in the military,” she said. “I loved the diversity of the people I met – the people of different religions, backgrounds, and races, and from all socio-economic groups. Learning is learning, creating environments where people can take risks to take on new challenges. It’s what the military does all the time.”
Trailblazing, every step of the way.