The ‘liar’ who became a role model: Anita Hill stands by her story 23 years after giving the US a vocabulary to talk about sexual harassment.
BY: SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
On the day in 1991 that the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, Anita Hill — the little-known law professor who rivetted America by accusing him of sexual harassment — faced news cameras outside her simple brick home in Norman, Oklahoma, and politely declined to comment on the vote.
In the nearly 23 years since, Hill, now a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has worked hard to help women “find their voices”. She has also found hers — and she is not afraid to use it.
“I believe in my heart that he shouldn’t have been confirmed,” she says. “I believe that the information I provided was clear, it was verifiable, it was confirmed by witnesses. And I think what people don’t understand is that it does go to his ability to be a fair and impartial judge.”
It was a surprisingly candid comment from a deeply private woman. But the quiet life Hill has carved out for herself is about to be upended — by her own choice — with the release of a documentary, Anita, opening this month.
For those too young to remember, Hill was the witness in the explosive Thomas hearings, the young African-American lawyer in the aqua suit, grilled in graphic detail by an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearings transformed the country, sparking a searing conversation about sexual harassment, as well as Hill, who was villified as a liar by conservatives but ultimately embraced by a new generation of women.
For Hill, the film, directed by Academy Award winner Freida Mock, is a chance to show that she has survived, thrived and, as she says, “moved on”.
Yet like Anita the person, Anita the movie is bound to unleash raw feelings in Washington. Some conservative Republicans still revile Hill. Some Democrats — including Vice-President Joseph R Biden Jr, who “did a terrible job” running the hearings, in Hill’s view — would probably like to forget her. A spokeswoman for Biden said he “continues to wish nothing but the best for Anita Hill”.
Justice Thomas, who supervised Hill at two federal agencies, declined to comment. (In his 2007 autobiography, he referred to Hill as “my most traitorous adversary”.) But his backers, who include some former clerks, are not shy about speaking out.
“I honestly think she’s making it up,” said Carrie Severino, a former Thomas clerk and chief counsel of advocacy group Judicial Crisis Network. “She’s built her career on that story.”
At 57, Hill, the youngest of 13 children from a rural Oklahoma farm family, is in many ways the same poised, dignified woman America met 23 years ago. She has the same lyrical voice, the same way of answering questions with perfect precision.
Yet she is also profoundly changed. “I think this event gave her a public mission,” says Fred Lawrence, the Brandeis continued…