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 president and a Yale Law School classmate of Hill. “She understood that the circumstances had put her in a unique role.”
The hearings were a surreal spectacle, as senators prodded an uncomfortable Hill through awkward testimony about penis size, pubic hair and a pornographic film star known as Long Dong Silver. When the hearings ended, Hill returned to teaching commercial law at the University of Oklahoma, trying to find “a new normal”. It proved difficult.
There were thousands of letters of support, but also threats. Conservative state lawmakers wanted her fired.
In Washington, her testimony reverberated. Sexual harassment claims shot up. “Our phones were ringing off the hook with people willing to come forward who had been suffering in silence,” says Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Centre, where Hill serves on its board.
Congress passed a law allowing victims of sex discrimination to sue for damages. Waves of women began seeking public office. In 1991, there were two female senators. Today, there are 20.
Hill published a memoir in 1997; the following year, she joined Brandeis, teaching and pursuing research on gender and racial inequality. Today, many of her students have no idea who Anita Hill is. “I had to Google it,” says one, Megan Madison, who considers Hill a mentor.
A friend introduced Hill to Mock, whose 1994 film about architect Maya Lin won an Oscar for best feature documentary. With Hill, the director says, she wanted to tell “the story of an ordinary person who does an extraordinary act”.
If Hill has a legacy, experts say, it is in creating a vocabulary to talk about sexual harassment, where none existed before.
In 1991, after a confidential memo containing Hill’s accusations had leaked out, seven women Democratic House members had marched over to the Senate to demand that she be called as a witness. “I can’t even imagine a hearing today where a woman would come forth with an accusation of sexual harassment, and it would be ignored,” says Representative Nita Lowey, the New York Democrat who was among them.
Looking back, Hill says, she marvels at how hard her critics worked to destroy her. “And yet,” she adds, “here I am.”