Anita Hill, 20 Years Later

Twenty-three years ago, Anita Hill testified before Congress in the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, who is now a Supreme Court justice. Hill’s testimony brought the term “sexual harassment” into the general American lexicon, and changed the way we talk about gender, power and the workplace. At the time, Hill was vilified by the media and treated horribly by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her testimony, and the hostility she faced, galvanized women and feminists across the U.S. On Friday, a new documentary called “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” will be released. I’ve seen it, and it’s excellent — go check it out.

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Hill — one of my personal heroes — and to interview her for Cosmopolitan. You can read the whole thing here. A bit of it:

What advice would you give to other women who want to speak out?

Take care of yourself. Talk to people who know you and love you and tell them what happened. Accept that it’s not your fault. A lot of people still think, “Oh, well, I thought I was being nice but they misinterpreted,” or “I just wanted to be friendly,” or “I was trying to be a good employee,” or “Maybe I should have worn something different.” But you are not to be blamed because someone else misbehaved.

Then you can prepare yourself to come forward. Know what the institutional policies are, whether it’s a college or a workplace or any other organization. Take the steps to learn what the processes are, who to go see, what an investigation is going to look like, what kind of evidence you need to be able to convince people of what’s happening, and the potential outcomes. Having that knowledge is important.

These things can be all-consuming. You get to a point where you can feel like you are defined by this thing that is happening to you, that you didn’t choose, that somebody imposed on you. That’s when I say, go back to those people who love you and care about you and realize that this is something that is happening to you. It is not who you are. You are not a victim. You are a whole human being with a lot of skills and a lot of gifts that will define who you are, and you should refuse to be defined by an incident. Remember those things that made you who you were before it happened.

24 comments for “Anita Hill, 20 Years Later

  1. March 17, 2014 at 10:38 am

    I am amazed at how poised and confident she is in her replies. This is the sign of someone wronged who has come to terms with it.

    I was still fairly young when this happened, but I do remember the backlash against Anita Hill. It was mostly confusing to me, though I do recall that I was encouraged to doubt her testimony.

  2. Lauren
    March 17, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I also remember being encouraged to doubt her testimony, and how it was culturally reinforced that she was crazy and her accusations were outlandish and unthinkable because Thomas was so accomplished and prestigious. SO WAS SHE, but wevs, American Public. Ladies be crazy.

    As a working adult now, thankfully after sexual harassment laws are commonplace and adherence is part of the office culture, I nevertheless have enough experience with sexual harassment at work to know that the dude sitting on the Supreme Court was probably just as disgusting and awful (and his wife! OMG) as Hill said in her extensive sworn testimony.

    I love, love, love that she kept on trucking and maintained a life as a professional person, and didn’t fade into obscurity. I can’t wait to see this movie.

  3. Tim
    March 17, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    I was in my 30s, but I had been in the work world long enough to believe Anita Hill without the slightest reservation. Every. Single. Word. And I know she would have had a hard time of it no matter what, but I have always blamed the cluelessness, incompetence, indifference or whatever of Joe Biden for making it worse. The Democrats had the majority in the Senate and Biden sat there presiding over the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings with his weird grin and goofy hand gestures, allowing Arlen Specter and the other GOP goons to savage Anita Hill. It’s one of the main reasons that I can hardly stomach the man to this day. It is true that Hill was amazing in all the ways and I am glad to hear that apparently things are OK with her.

    • ldouglas
      March 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm

      The Democrats had the majority in the Senate and Biden sat there presiding over the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings with his weird grin and goofy hand gestures, allowing Arlen Specter and the other GOP goons to savage Anita Hill.

      I’m not sure how much power you think the chairman of a Senate committee has over other Senators during a hearing, but the correct answer is almost none (and even less during a confirmation hearing). The idea that Biden could have somehow controlled the questions asked by other Senators has been floating around forever, and it’s entirely ludicrous.

      • Donna L
        March 17, 2014 at 3:52 pm

        I think it’s less that, perhaps, than that they didn’t seem to be as aggressive in fighting back against the accusations, and in questioning (and investigating) Thomas, as they could have been

      • Tim
        March 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm

        I guess then we shouldn’t worry that much about the GOP getting control of the Senate in the midterms this fall. If it happens, we will see just how powerless their committee chairpersons will be.

      • ldouglas
        March 18, 2014 at 2:01 am

        Tim, I don’t want to be rude, but frankly you are utterly clueless about how the US government works. Of course the GOP taking control would matter, but not because of the new chairperson’s ability to influence hearings. Rather, they would be able to pass legislation more easily.

        For more information, I suggest schoolhouse rock.

        A former legislative aide in the US Senate and Public Policy PhD candidate

      • TimmyTwinkles
        March 18, 2014 at 2:49 pm

        You’re right about the Senate ldouglas, but as I have also put in some time on the Hill, I must state on the record that Biden really is as bumbling and incompetent in real life as his critics think he is. Which of course makes him the opposite of Obama, who really isn’t the things he’s painted as by the Right hit squads. Biden is my poster boy for why we desperately need term limits.

      • ldouglas
        March 18, 2014 at 3:33 pm

        I’ll always have a soft spot for him, mostly due to the fact that he was responsible for the Violence Against Women Act.

        I also have to say that I’ve never seen him as particularly incompetent; his office certainly put out good work, though you and I both know that the skill of legislative staffers can compensate for a lot of weakness in the principle. Anyways, in our (very!) limited personal interactions, he was came across as friendly, smart, and well-educated on the issue at hand (which, as I’m sure you recall, is not as common as one would hope).

      • TimmyTwinkles
        March 18, 2014 at 4:24 pm

        You’re right he is friendly, and i have no doubt a very decent man. Incompetent wasnt really a good choice of words; he can navigate the in-house landscape about as well as anyone at this point. Definitely agree with what you said about Hill too, i cant see much he could have done one way or the other to sway the outcome.

  4. Donna L
    March 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    I was in my 30’s as well, and followed everything closely. I also believed every single word (as did everyone with whom I discussed it, even Republicans — even if they wouldn’t publicly admit it), and was apoplectically infuriated at the idea that there were so many people who either disbelieved her or pretended to for political reasons. I remember being particularly repulsed, apart from everything else, at Thomas’s characterization of his alleged “persecution” as a “high-tech lynching.” That may have been the first time I heard the word misused in such a horrible way, but it’s become unfortunately common since then.

    • Donna L
      March 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm

      I should add that as completely rejected and vilified by organized feminism as I understood people like me to be back then, I still identified as a feminist, as I had since my early teens.

    • Donna L
      March 17, 2014 at 3:35 pm

      And now that Tim mentions it, I also remember Biden and the other Democrats coming off as incredibly incompetent in controlling the proceedings.

    • ldouglas
      March 17, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      (as did everyone with whom I discussed it, even Republicans — even if they wouldn’t publicly admit it)

      Yeah, this. My impression was always that everyone knew she was telling the truth, they just agreed to pretend otherwise out of convenience. Which, for me, made it even more enraging.

  5. Nobody
    March 17, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    SNL had long since lost it’s edge for the most part by the time of Thomas confirmation, but their skit about the senators questioning Anita Hill was pure gold.

  6. Bloix
    March 17, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    The Dems on the committee were hopeless. Biden made an incomprehensible deal with the Republicans that he would not call two women witnesses who would have corroborated Hill, while women witnesses who supported Thomas were allowed to testify. Ted Kennedy was so personally compromised by his own sexual history that he was useless. None of the Dems (all white, all male) were willing to question a black man about sex, and all of them were rocked by Thomas’s accusation that the hearing was “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” They didn’t lay a finger on Thomas, and they didn’t give Hill any help.

    The Republicans were unified and aggressive in support of Thomas. Arlen Spector, an experienced former prosecutor who unlike the Dems knew how to cross-examine a witness, was brutal in his treatment of Hill, and she got no help from the hapless Dems.

    It was one of the most poorly run hearings in the history of the Senate. The Dems showed up unarmed and the Republicans were loaded for bear.

    • Tim
      March 17, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Exactly right. Thanks, you said it much better than I did.

    • Donna L
      March 17, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      Thank you. I have a terrible memory for details like that, but everything you say sounds extremely familiar.

    • ldouglas
      March 18, 2014 at 5:23 pm

      None of the Dems (all white, all male) were willing to question a black man about sex, and all of them were rocked by Thomas’s accusation that the hearing was “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

      Yeah, this was my takeaway as well.

  7. trees
    March 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    The only thing I really remember about the Thomas confirmation is some black men (unknown to each other) saying that Hill was being used by white feminists to bring down a black man.

    • Victoria
      March 17, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      It was explained to me in similar terms, only it was white Christians claiming that Hill was being used by Godless Feminists to try to bring down a Persecuted Man of God.

      • trees
        March 17, 2014 at 10:35 pm

        Interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard that angle.

  8. March 19, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Who are you outside of your testimony? What do people not know about you?

    I wonder if there’s anything they don’t know! I am the youngest of 13 children. I am the granddaughter of slaves. My parents were born in 1911 and 1912, and they lived through segregation and they lived through blatant race and sex discrimination, and they raised strong, empowered, successful children.

    This section sent shivers up my spine. This is much more than one story about one individual, this is a story about the history of the United States–a history that affects all of us. Anita Hill is one BAMF.

  9. lhmezzo
    March 25, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Just wanted to recommend Hill’s 2011 book, “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home.” And also put in a plug for supporting your local libraries and librarians, as I found this book browsing the new books section, where it was highlighted by staff.

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