It was during the Senate confirmation hearings in October 1991, for United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that Anita Hill became famous. She came forward with sexual harassment charges against Judge Thomas that shocked the nation, and many watched as she poured out painful details of Thomas's alleged sexual harassment, purportedly committed when both had worked for the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
On October 6, 1991, Anita Hill's life was dramatically and irrevocably changed when her charges of sexual harassment against a former employer, Clarence Thomas, were made public on the eve of his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. In the ensuing days, Hill was grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee about the graphic details of the alleged harassment and about her personal life. Her compelling testimony before the committee was broadcast live around the globe, sweeping her from the quiet obscurity of her life as a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma. Her charges produced a stunning collision of race and gender issues, and reactions to her and her story were highly polarized; some viewed her as a hero and a martyr, while others vilified her as mentally unstable, a liar, and even a racist.
In the end, the U.S. House and Senate chose to dismiss her allegations, and as a result, Thomas was given a seat on the highest court in the nation. Yet, Hill's appearance in Washington, D.C., was by no means without far-reaching effects. Her testimony, and the committee's reaction to it, have since been credited with revitalizing feminism, greatly increasing the public's awareness of sexual harassment, inspiring women to run for office in record numbers, and significantly increasing the numbers of women willing to speak out publicly about their own experiences of sexual harassment when they might otherwise have suffered in silence.
Nothing in Anita Hill's upbringing could have prepared her for the glare of international publicity she would eventually face. The youngest in a family of 13 children, she was raised in a deeply religious atmosphere on her parents' farm in rural Morris, Oklahoma, located some 45 miles south of Tulsa. Sundays were spent at the Lone Pine Baptist Church, while the rest of her week was filled with farm chores and schoolwork. She attended Okmulgee County's integrated schools, where she earned straight As and graduated as class secretary, valedictorian, and a National Honor Society student. After graduation, she attended Oklahoma State University, where she continued her outstanding academic performance and graduated with a degree in psychology and numerous academic honors.
An internship with a local judge had turned her ambitions to the field of law, and she sought and won admission into Yale University's demanding School of Law, where she was one of 11 black students in a class of 160. After graduation, she took a full-time job as a professional lawyer with the Washington law firm of Ward, Harkrader, and Ross.
Association with Clarence Thomas
In 1981, after working with the firm for about a year, Hill accepted a job as the personal assistant to Clarence Thomas, who was then head of the Office of Civil Rights at the Education Department in Washington. It was at this time, according to her sworn testimony, that he made repeated advances toward her and, when she rebuffed him, began to make vulgar remarks to her and to describe in vivid detail various hard-core pornographic films he had seen. When he began dating someone else, Hill stated, the harassment stopped, and she accepted an offer to follow him to a better job when he was made chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The alleged harassment began again, however, according to Hill's version of the events. In 1983, after being hospitalized with stress-related stomach problems, she left Washington to accept a position as a professor in the area of civil rights at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. As a faculty member of this conservative religious school, Hill took an oath that said in part: "I will not lie, I will not steal, I will not curse, I will not be a talebearer."
In 1986, the university was reorganized, and the law school moved to the state of Virginia. Because she preferred to be near her family in Oklahoma, Hill declined to move with the school and instead sought employment at the University of Oklahoma, where she became a specialist in contract law. Six years of teaching are usually required before tenured status is granted to a professor there, but Hill was tenured after only four years. In addition to her teaching duties, she served on the faculty senate and was also named the faculty administrative fellow in the Office of the Provost, which made her a key voice in all major academic policy decisions.
Call from the Senate
Such was the state of Hill's life on September 3, 1991, when she was approached by the Senate Judiciary Committee and asked to supply background information on Clarence Thomas, who was then being considered as a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In a news conference given at the University of Oklahoma by Hill, which was excerpted at length in the New York Times, Hill elaborated: "They asked me questions about work that I had done there, and they asked me specifically about harassment and issues involving women in the work-place. Those questions, I have heard, were prompted by rumors that individuals who had worked at the agency had understood that I had been subject to some improper conduct … while at the agency." Hill, who had never filed a complaint against Thomas, found herself reluctant to go public with her story some ten years after the fact.
Initially, she decided to protect herself and her privacy by remaining silent. On further reflection, however, she apparently felt an obligation to tell the truth as she knew it, no matter how difficult that might be. "Here is a person [Thomas] who is in charge of protecting rights of women and other groups in the workplace and he is using his position of power for personal gain for one thing, " she said in an interview with National Public Radio, also quoted by the New York Times. "And he did it in an very ugly and intimidating way."
By September 9, Hill had decided to cooperate in the investigation of Thomas on the condition that her identity be kept confidential. But she was informed on September 20 that the Judiciary Committee could not be told her story unless Thomas was notified of her identity and given a chance to respond to her allegations. Furthermore, if she agreed to cooperate, she and Thomas would both be questioned by the FBI. Hill pondered these new facts as the confirmation hearings for Thomas, already underway, drew near their close. On September 23, she agreed to allow her name to be used in an FBI investigation. She also requested permission to submit a personal statement to the committee.
Hill has since criticized the handling of her complaint, in part because copies of the FBI report were given to just two committee members, and her personal statement also failed to reach all those who should have seen it. Thomas, meanwhile, had issued a sworn statement forcefully denying all of Hill's allegations against him. In his version of the events, he had simply asked Hill out for dates a few times. He and his supporters characterized her eleventh-hour appearance as a ploy designed to keep him off the bench, engineered by liberals opposed to his appointment to the court. Hill answered such suggestions in her press conference at the University of Oklahoma: "There is absolutely no basis for that allegation, that I am somehow involved in some political plan to undermine the nominee. And I cannot even understand how someone could attempt to support such a claim. … This has taken a great toll on me personally and professionally, and there is no way that I would do something like this for political purposes."
After considerable debate, the U.S. Senate decided that new hearings on Thomas's confirmation would be held and that Hill would be called to Washington to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee—which was made up of 14 white, male legislators. The televised hearings, which included Hill's and Thomas's appearances, drew an audience of millions, who were riveted by the drama of race and sex unfolding on the screen. Hill remained dignified and composed throughout the proceedings—in the face of repetitive questioning by the senators. Her credibility and character were vehemently attacked by some observers, who questioned why she maintained a speaking relationship with Thomas after the alleged incidents occurred and why she never filed a formal complaint. Republican legislator Arlen Specter went so far as to imply that Hill had fantasized the whole scenario; others suggested that she was acting out of jealousy because Thomas had failed to provide her the attentions she secretly desired from him.
Racial issues were in evidence during the hearings and influenced reaction among both the general public and the Judiciary Committee. Thomas himself fueled that fire when he denounced the proceedings as a "high-tech lynching, " effectively accusing Hill of participating in a racist plot to keep him out of the Supreme Court because he is black. In the book Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, essayist Carol M. Swain discussed another race-related phenomenon that turned the tide of black opinion against Hill: "For African Americans generally, the issue was not so much whether Hill was credible or not; she was dismissed because many saw her as a person who had violated the code … which mandates that blacks should not criticize, let alone accuse, each other in front of whites."
In the Aftermath
The nomination of Clarence Thomas was confirmed on October 16, 1991. Hill, who had by then returned to Oklahoma, accepted the news with the composure that had marked her appearance before the committee. Disregarding all the racial, political, and feminist implications of the decision, she told Roberto Suro of the New York Times: "For me it is enough justice getting it heard. I just wanted people to know and understand that this had happened. … You just have to tell the truth and that's the most anyone can expect from you and if you get that opportunity, you will have accomplished something."
Many of Hill's detractors had predicted that she would capitalize on her experience by making high-paid speaking appearances, writing a book, or even selling her story as a television movie-of-the-week, but in the months following her testimony, she proved them wrong. She resumed her usual teaching duties and returned to her regular routine as nearly as was possible, given the reporters and others who constantly sought her out. In time she took a sabbatical from teaching, using the interlude to study the sociology and psychology of sexual harassment. Aside from an appearance on the CBS News program 60 Minutes, and, much later, one on the Today show, she turned down all interview requests. She made carefully selected appearances on the speaking circuit, often for no fee, and at such appearances, she declined to talk in detail about the hearings or her own personal experience, focusing instead on the larger issues of sexual harassment and discrimination in general.
Following the hearings, former Minnesota House representative Gloria M. Segal approached Hill with a plan to establish an endowed fund for a special professorship in her name—devoted to the study of sexual harassment and workplace equity—at the University of Oklahoma. In spite of the fact that half of the $250, 000 needed for the project was easily raised, by mid-1993 work on establishing the professorship had stalled, due mainly to the adverse publicity and political fallout felt at the University of Oklahoma. The future of the fund remains in doubt, although several other colleges and universities across the country have reportedly expressed an interest in assuming control of the money and following through on the institution of the professorship.
The Thomas-Hill hearings continued to resonate long after the headlines had faded. Public opinion polls taken at the time of the Senate hearings showed that a majority of those polled discredited Hill's story. Yet a poll taken one year later showed that twice as many people had come to believe her version of the events. Then, in the spring of 1993, investigative journalist David Brock published his controversial book The Real Anita Hill, in which he claims to offer hard evidence that Hill lied about her relationship with Thomas. Political commentator George F. Will commented in Newsweek: "To believe that Hill told the truth you must believe that dozens of people, with no common or even apparent motive to lie, did so. Brock's book will be persuasive to minds not sealed by the caulking of ideology. If Hill is a 'victim, ' it is not of sexual harassment. … Rather, she may be a victim of the system … that taught her to think of herself as a victim and made her fluent in the rhetoric of victimization."
Still, Anita Hill has, for many, become a symbol of a new and powerful wave of feminism. Women's groups continue to credit Hill's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee with vastly increasing the public's awareness of sexual harassment and making it much less tolerated in the workplace. In an Associated Press news story dated October 11, 1992, Helen Neuborne, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, stated: "A lot of women had felt so isolated and perhaps couldn't even define sexual harassment. … The hearings made an enormous difference even though they were horrible."
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where Hill and Thomas once worked, reported a 50 percent increase in complaints filed for harassment in the year following Hill's testimony. Additionally, in the aftermath of the hearings, numerous women ran for and won election to government office for the first time, citing their dissatisfaction with the all-male Senate Committee's response to Hill's allegations as their primary reason for doing so. And debate about the truth or falsity of Hill's allegations went on. Tonya Bolden, a Black Enterprise contributor commenting on the various analyses of the Hill-Thomas affair, suggested that the entire incident may have sparked a vital understanding of broader issues. As she put it in the April 1993 issue: "At the end you care less about who was lying and more about what you can do to counter racism and sexism."
In the fall of 1995, Hill retuned to her teaching position at the University of Oklahoma. During her leave, she authored two books. In 1995, she co-edited the book Race, Gender, and Power in America: the legacy of the Hill-Thomas hearing with Emma Coleman Jordan. Hill left the University of Oklahoma at the end of the fall 1996 semester.
Further Reading on Anita Hill
The Black Scholar staff, editors, Court of Appeal: The Black Community Speaks Out on the Racial and Sexual Politics of Thomas vs. Hill, One World/Ballantine, 1992.
Brock, David, The Real Anita Hill, Free Press, 1993.
Morrison, Toni, editor, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, Pantheon, 1992.
American Spectator, March 1992.
Associated Press wire report, October 11, 1992.
Black Enterprise, April 1993, p. 12.
Essence, March 1992, pp. 55-56, 116-17.
Ms., January-February 1992.
Nation, November 4, 1991.
National Law Journal, January 20, 1992.
Newsweek, December 28, 1992, pp. 20-22; April 19, 1993, p. 74.
New York Times, October 7, 1991; October 8, 1991; October 9, 1991; October 10, 1991; October 11, 1991; October 14, 1991; October 16, 1991; October 17, 1991; November 2, 1991; December 18, 1991; February 3, 1992; April 26, 1992; October 7, 1992; October 17, 1992; October 19, 1992.
New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1992.
Oakland Press (Oakland County, MI), October 11, 1992; April 24, 1993, p. A4.
Time, October 21, 1991; October 19, 1992.
U.S. News and World Report, November 2, 1992.
Working Woman, September 1992, p. 21.