By Harriet McLeod

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - For two decades, women in Columbia, South Carolina have gathered annually for an "I Believe Anita Hill" party, at first out of anger and then to celebrate what they considered a milestone in the fight against sexual harassment.

In October 1991, Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of making sexually inappropriate comments when she worked for him at the Department of Education and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Thomas, who denied her charges, was confirmed despite Hill's testimony before the U.S. Senate, but the crowd of 500 that turned out Thursday night for an "I Believe Anita Hill" soiree marking the hearing's 20th anniversary said her words had made an impact on women.

Before Hill's testimony, "we knew that we had to bite our tongues to keep our jobs. We have joined together and keep alive the memory of what Anita did for us," party organizer Barbara Rackes said.

Hill, for just the second time in the group's history, took part in what members believe is the only event of its kind in the country.

"This isn't about me. It's about you. And it's not over," she told the mostly female, racially diverse crowd that included the state's female Supreme Court chief justice.

Now a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Hill has been back in the spotlight recently, giving speeches and promoting her new book, "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home."

She made several appearances in Columbia this week, including giving a lecture at the University of South Carolina law school on the social value of home ownership and racial and gender inequality in lending practices.

"We've come a long way," Hill said in response to audience questions after her lecture. "How did we get there? It wasn't simply my testimony."

"It was your voices, your conversations, the conversations that you had in your home with your loved ones, the conversations that you had in your workplaces with your colleagues, the conversations that some of you had with your lawyers when you filed complaints."

Hill's critics, on the Senate Judiciary Committee and off, have asked, if her harassment allegations were true, why she had followed Thomas to a second agency and then maintained contact after she no longer worked with him.

'WE HAVE CHANGED'

During an interview with Reuters, Hill said public perceptions of women's claims of sexual abuse and harassment continued to evolve in what she described as a positive direction.

After former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid, Hill said she was pleased that other hotel workers demonstrated on the accuser's behalf.

The attempted rape charges were dropped in August after doubts arose over the hotel maid's credibility.

"All of that means change. We have changed. Twenty years ago, I don't think the first step would have been taken," Hill said.

Hill said she was impressed by the commitment of the "I Believe Anita Hill" group members. "To me, it's pretty tremendous that they still have that passion and fire," she said.

Twenty women in Columbia formed the group in 1991 out of anger following what they considered harsh treatment of Hill by U.S. senators, including the late Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican, during Thomas' confirmation hearing.

"The majority of the people in 1991 after I testified said 'what?' The majority of people, seven out of 10, thought I had perjured myself," said Hill, who has maintained that her testimony was truthful.

Last year, she said she had no plans to act on a voicemail left by Virginia Thomas, Justice Thomas' wife, who suggested Hill should consider apologizing for her role in the hearing.

The founders of "I Believe Anita Hill" had no doubt the critics of Hill's testimony were wrong.

"Women believed her. Women understood," said attorney Carol Sanders. "Men didn't get it."

"Men believed her, too," said health care consultant Lynn Bailey, an original member. "They just said 'so what?' Every one of us has our sexual harassment moment."

Writer Kevin Gray, among the men at the party, said Hill showed people that black women were not powerless.

"As a black man, I think black progressive female leadership is something the black community, with its history of sexism, should pay attention to," he said.

Elizabeth Nkuo Johnson, who works in community relations, said the "I Believe Anita Hill" campaign was an important one for the entire country.

"We have to seek justice for everybody," she said. "No one should ever feel threatened in the workplace."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)