World

Anita Hill Discusses Clarence Thomas Twenty Years Later

anita hill sexual harassment trial
AP

On a balmy Indian-summer afternoon in Waltham, Mass., a slender, attractive 55-year-old professor welcomes a visitor to her modest office at Brandeis University to talk about the historic scandal that transformed the national debate over sexual harassment two decades ago.

Calm and as cheerful as her bright tomato-red cardigan, Anita Hill smiles wryly when asked if she suffered from posttraumatic stress after testifying at Justice Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, where she was pilloried for revealing the way she said he behaved as her boss in two different jobs.

“It was traumatic,” acknowledges Hill, who teaches public policy, law, and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. “It hurt, and it hurt people I cared about. But I was determined not to be defeated by people who tried to make me out to be something I wasn’t.”

As the 20th anniversary of the hearings approaches, Hill is preparing to deliver the keynote address at a conference commemorating her contribution to the issue of sexual harassment, “Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth,” which will be held at New York’s Hunter College on Oct. 15. Such public visibility is uncharacteristic for Hill, who remained silent about Justice Thomas’s conduct for years before being summoned to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee after investigators heard reports that the Supreme Court nominee had sexually harassed female employees on the job. After the hearings, Hill virtually disappeared into private life and has since kept such a low profile that many women feared she was shattered by the poisonous retaliation she endured. “I always thought she was broken by it,” says one Ivy League professor and women’s-history expert who has never met Hill.

But Hill refused to succumb. “I really want to have a good life; I want to have a life that’s worthwhile and meaningful. Being consumed by anger is inconsistent with the goals I have for my life,” says Hill, who grew up in poverty on an Oklahoma farm as the youngest of 13 children. “But of course I’m angry. I’m angry with him, I’m angry with the senators—I’m probably less angry than I was 10 years ago, but it’s still there. I think we let go of anger bit by bit. To me, the best way to do that is to think about what my contribution can be, to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people. The larger goal is both gender equality and racial equality, because both racism and sexism contributed to my being victimized. But I don’t want to walk around being angry all the time. It’s not constructive.”

The fiercely partisan battle over Thomas’s confirmation began with criticism that he was not well qualified to serve on the Supreme Court and exploded into a cause célèbre with Hill’s appearance. A law professor who had previously worked for Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Hill testified that her former boss habitually talked about pornography in the office; described X-rated material that ranged from bestiality to a character called Long Dong Silver; badgered her about why she wouldn’t go out with him; bragged about his physical endowment and sexual prowess; and taunted her with lewd remarks, such as accusing her of putting pubic hair on his can of Coca-Cola.

In response, the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated Hill with a ferocity that shocked even political veterans, impugning everything from her competence to her sanity to her sexuality. Like a horrifyingly mismatched gladiatorial contest pitting a powerful gang of well-armed men against a woman with no defense save her own account of what someone had done to her against her will, the televised hearings mesmerized the nation. Many female observers were aghast at the way Hill was bullied and demeaned by the committee, whose members seemed both hostile and clueless about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The senators were horrible,” says Ellen Bravo, the former executive director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, and author of The 9to5 Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment. “They were all white and all male, and their questions ranged from insensitive to horrific. They were at best ignorant, and at worst maliciously inclined to discredit her.”

Justice Thomas denied Hill’s allegations, preemptively refused to answer questions about “what goes on in the sanctity of my bedroom,” and accused those who opposed him of engaging in “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”

After Thomas was confirmed, a right-wing smear campaign continued to portray Hill as a man-hater, a crusading leftist, a feminist zealot, a spurned woman bent on revenge, and a delusional spinster unhinged by thwarted lust for her former boss, among other slurs—a “deranged liar,” as author David Brock wrote later in recounting the ways he distorted the truth in his bestseller The Real Anita Hill, a hatchet job that memorably described the reserved Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”

In a subsequent book called Blinded by the Right, Brock apologized for the venal tactics he had used at the behest of Hill’s Republican tormentors. But the damage was done; the demonization of Anita Hill illustrated all too clearly how women could be victimized if they reported sexual harassment by men in positions of authority.

For Hill, the price was steep. A law professor at the University of Oklahoma, she became the target of what she describes as “an effort to drive me out,” and she ultimately left her job and her community.

Women’s-rights advocates initially viewed the whole debacle as a disastrous setback for the nation as well. “When Hill was not believed, the feeling was that this would cause fewer people to report sexual harassment,” says Gloria Steinem. “But what happened was the reverse, because she had opened up the subject. Women began to talk to each other and discovered that this had happened to many other women, so it turned out to be a huge national teach-in on sexual harassment.”

anita-hill-fe04-lead Anita Hill at Brandeis University.

Hill’s courage also inspired countless other victims. “Her dignity, composure, and credibility were stunning. Women thought, ‘She stood up to this, and maybe I can too,’” says Catharine MacKinnon, the pioneering legal scholar who argued in the 1970s that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, establishing the framework used by the EEOC in adopting its 1980 guidelines prohibiting such misconduct.

Sexual-harassment complaints filed with the EEOC increased by 50 percent in the year following the hearings—and that was only the beginning. “Women’s willingness to come forward and file sexual-harassment complaints doubled in the five years after that,” Hill says.

Although Brock called Hill “the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment,” she is characteristically restrained in discussing her contribution to history. “There’s still a lot of sexual harassment in the workplace, but I think there is a greater awareness now, and a better understanding among employers about how sexual harassment affects the ability of women to perform their work,” she says. “I don’t think the arc of progress is steady, but I do think it is moving in the right direction, and we have to continue to insist.”

Although Hill and Justice Thomas each told their side of the story in subsequent memoirs, Hill has not published another book since 1997, when Speaking Truth to Power came out. But the nation’s economic woes finally inspired her to write a new work called Reimagining Inequality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home, whose scope ranges from her own family history to subprime lending and the predatory practices of financial institutions.

For the last two decades, Hill has remained single and childless, as she was during the hearings—a status that influenced her treatment, she says. “I think it still makes women more vulnerable. People think all kinds of things about your social acceptability, your sexuality, your conformity to social expectations and standards if you don’t fit. A certain kind of legitimacy comes with being married and having children.”

When asked why she never married, Hill answers with her usual impersonal earnestness. “Statistically, a lot of women aren’t getting married, and a larger number of African-American women aren’t getting married, and I’ve been in that demographic,” she says blandly, as if the natural answer to such a question was a discussion of census data.

In fact, Hill has a longtime partner, although this is not information she volunteers. But her new book is dedicated “To Chuck,” and when questioned, she nods agreeably and acknowledges that she has been involved for 10 years with a man named Chuck Malone, whom she describes as being “in the insurance business.”

“I tell people I’m really too old to call him my boyfriend, but that’s what I call him,” she says. “We have a really good relationship.”

So why haven’t they wed? “Because things are going so well,” she says with a smile. “We’re both committed, and we’re happy. We’re together every day of the year, but we each have our own home. I don’t have anything against marriage; I haven’t decided not to do it. I just haven’t decided to do it.”

Hill’s resolute calmness presents a striking contrast with the bitterness and rage Thomas expressed at the hearings and in his own memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. Although it wasn’t published until 2007, his account bristled with fury about the world in general and Hill—whom he labeled “traitorous”—in particular.

Thomas’s current wife, Virginia, seems equally unwilling to leave the past behind. When Hill worked for Thomas in the 1980s, his first marriage had unraveled, and he had not yet met his second wife, who is now a Tea Party activist and outspoken conservative.

But last October, Ginni Thomas left a bizarre voicemail on Hill’s Brandeis phone at 7:30 on a Saturday morning—hardly a time when one would expect to find a college professor in her office. “I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of what you did with my husband,” Ginni said. “So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. OK, have a good day.”

At first Hill thought the message was a prank. “Then I saw the caller ID and it was her,” Hill says. “I got angry that she suggested that I apologize. I thought it was invasive to call my workplace, not to have a conversation but to leave a message that I thought was really inappropriate, coming from someone who has never met me and wasn’t on the scene when I was working for Clarence Thomas. She’s the wife of a Supreme Court justice. I’m not sure whether it was meant to intimidate me, or what the purpose of it was.”

Hill turned the message over to law-enforcement authorities, and when the news became public, Justice Thomas’s longtime friend and former employee Armstrong Williams—who accused Hill of having mental problems during the hearings—wrote a column claiming that Ginni’s call was “a brave step” taken “because she wanted to forgive.”

Williams did not respond to requests for further comment from Newsweek, nor did Ginni Thomas. Justice Thomas turned down an interview request through a Supreme Court spokesperson.

In any case, no apology will be forthcoming from Hill, who has never wavered from her testimony. “I did not say anything that wasn’t true,” she says firmly. “I did not perjure myself.”

But the question of whether Thomas lied remains highly debatable. During the hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to call other women who reported having similar experiences with him and might have given testimony that supported Hill’s account. The panel also did not hear evidence on such disputed subjects as his habitual use of pornography, although such practices were subsequently documented by others.

As Jeffrey Toobin noted recently in The New Yorker, “Virtually all the evidence that has emerged since the hearings corroborates Hill’s version of events. This, of course, makes Ginni Thomas’s phone call to Hill all the more puzzling.”

Although Hill hasn’t received any apologies from the senators who treated her so harshly, some feminist leaders report having been approached by a few of the more guilt-ridden. “Can you ever forgive us?” one senator asked Ellen Bravo when he ran into her later on. Facing a tough reelection campaign fueled by women’s fury, another asked Gloria Steinem what to do. “Well, you could apologize,” she suggested. He never did.

One of Hill’s chief antagonists was then–Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, who accused her of committing “flat-out perjury” during the hearings. He remains unrepentant. “I have no regrets,” Specter says. “I think I did a professional job, and I continue to believe the core conclusion that Anita Hill’s testimony was not a disqualifier.”

But when asked his opinion of Justice Thomas’s performance on the bench, Specter says tersely, “No comment. I’m not going to talk about how he’s done on the Supreme Court.”

By any measure, Thomas’s presence has shaped history through a series of crucial 5–4 decisions in which his vote determined the court’s direction, including the one that made George W. Bush president following the contested election of 2000.

As the anniversary of Hill’s trial by fire approaches, she seems more sorrowful than vengeful toward her former nemesis. “I am disappointed that Thomas could not rise above his behavior at any point, whether when he was harassing me or when he was nominated or when he wrote his book—that he could not become a bigger person,” she says. “To me, he’s a tragic character—because he’s angry, because he’s in a powerful position in our country in deciding people’s lives, and because I don’t think he can be objective in many of the cases. And that has an impact on the law, on people’s lives, and on how people see the court.”

She pauses, and then adds quietly, “I am glad I don’t have to deal with his conscience. I can sleep at night knowing I told the truth.”

That has given her peace of mind, and her own efforts have earned her the “good life” she set as her goal. As our conversation ends, Hill even permits herself a gentle smile, albeit one with no hint of defiance, triumph, or even visible pride in what she has overcome. To her, it’s just a simple statement of fact.

“I’m not broken,” she says.