After her 1991 testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings, Anita Hill became a symbol of the battle against sexual harassment. But in anticipation of her appearance in Santa Cruz, Hill talks to GT about the personal toll of sparking a political movement
Before Anita Hill, there was no national conversation about sexual harassment. And the way it started in 1991 was about as unlikely as anyone could have imagined—Clarence Thomas had been nominated to the Supreme Court by then-President George Bush, and in fact his Senate confirmation hearings were already over. That’s when Hill’s interview with the FBI, in which she accused Thomas (who had been her supervisor at two previous jobs) of sexual harassment, was leaked to the media.
When the Senate Judiciary Committee reluctantly reopened its hearings to hear Hill’s testimony, a media circus ensued, the likes of which had never been seen on Capitol Hill. Hill testified that Thomas had regularly made inappropriate sexual comments to her—about everything from porn to pubic hair to his own prowess, but somehow along the way the line of questioning seemed to shift from the accusations against Thomas to aspersions cast on Hill. In an interview with WNYC just last year, Senator Alan Simpson admitted he had been “a monster” to Hill, though he still couldn’t understand what all the fuss over her charges was about.
The character assassination of Hill got so insane that in 1993 David Brock wrote The Real Anita Hill; an entire book full of it. It turned out to be literally full of it, though, after Brock admitted “consciously lying”—under pressure, he said, from the “Republican sleaze machine”—and apologized to Hill for writing it.
Despite Hill’s testimony, Thomas was confirmed by the slimmest of margins, 52-48 in a party-line congressional vote. But her testimony had a ripple effect—it started a national discussion about sexual harassment, opening the door for other women to tell their stories, and is credited with influencing 1992’s “Year of the Woman” election, which saw the first steps toward gender equality in Congress. America, it seemed, had seen enough monsters.
What got lost in this battle over gender issues was the fact that at the center of it was a real person. Freida Lee Mock’s documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power attempts to retell Hill’s story as a human experience, rather than the political symbol it became. The film will be shown at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 22, and again at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 23.
In conjunction with the documentary screenings, Hill will speak on the UCSC campus at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 26. The event, which will be followed by a book signing, is free, but seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 5:30 p.m.
I spoke to Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University, about the documentary, as well as her perspective on the hearings two decades later, and how the media and its handling of sexual harassment have evolved.
GT: The Clarence Thomas hearings happened just a few years before the Internet, and the cultural landscape has changed so much since then, in terms of journalism and what reporters and editors are allowed to say. If your testimony happened now, there would be mass-media sites like Jezebel blogging about it relentlessly, with the kind of ferocious advocacy that only existed back then in the alternative and underground press. Look what happened with the Bill Cosby accusations—which had been out there for years—in just a couple of weeks last year after they were picked up by a few highly influential sites. Do you feel like your own accusations of sexual harassment would have been treated differently in today’s media landscape, and perhaps the outcome of Thomas’ hearings even been different?
ANITA HILL: I’m not sure what the outcome would have been, but I think you’re alluding to a much more vibrant conversation. I think the closest thing that we had at the time—we had legitimate journalism, but we also had talk radio. Talk radio was pretty animated about the hearings, so there is some evidence of what it might have been like if social media had been available. Talk radio to me is sort of the precursor to a lot of what you have today on the Internet, in terms of blogs and commentary. If you go back and look at what was being said, I think you’ll find some of the same kinds of things were being uttered. The language has changed, culturally we’ve changed in terms of what we will say. Let me give you an example that’s not about me, but about what happened recently with the Obama daughters [a Republican Congressional aide made national news last year for criticizing them on social media, and quickly resigned]. It was a Facebook post. That’s the kind of thing that might have been said in talk radio before. The people responding would probably have been a very limited audience, maybe the people who were listening right at that moment. But now, put that kind of commentary in today’s outlets, and you’re going to have it on Facebook, then you get it on the news, then the commentary shows on a whole range of news stations. The megaphone is much bigger and broader, and it sends it out and disperses it in ways that didn’t happen in 1991.
Also, your supporters would have had access to that megaphone in a way they didn’t in 1991. Personal stories and opinions that were once labeled “niche” now have a national audience.
I think it’s wonderful for us to start to tell those stories. It does seem that we’re now digging deeper. When we go back to some of the issues that came out of 1991, with sexual harassment and some of the issues we’re dealing with today with sexual assault, it really is social media that helps people to understand what impact those encounters have on people. We have video of people being harassed on the street, and we have the hashtag #yesallwomen talking about their day-to-day experiences dealing with the problems of sexual assault and the presumptions that men make about women, and women’s availability. We’re just at a different level of understanding now. And that’s great. But it really in many ways happened in 1991, because people started to talk about their experiences in ways they never had before.
Have journalists gotten better at reporting on these issues?
I think journalism has played a very important role in the evolution of our understanding of these issues. I think the initial reporting on the hearings missed the entire point that most people were trying to make. Because the initial reporting was wedded to this story of a “Washington scandal.” Therefore, the reporters looked around for the usual suspects, if you will, who were the interest groups that might have been out there, how might they have been influencing the process? Then they started looking at me as either a pawn of those groups, or someone who had my own vendetta against Clarence Thomas. And that’s how they reported, that’s the bubble that the media was in. It was the Washington press corps, and that’s what they operated under. Then a few weeks or months later, there was a story on the cover of People magazine about a prominent surgeon at Stanford who talked about her experience of sexual harassment in the operating room—having people propositioning her and fondling her while she was doing surgery. And there were other stories [of sexual harassment] in that issue as well. Then there was a piece in a San Diego newspaper by two female reporters who, again, took it out of the frame of Washington D.C., and started talking about it as a workplace issue. Which in fact it was. Then the story started evolving, and people started sharing their own experiences, and you really had a sense then of what the impact of these kinds of behaviors were—psychologically, economically, socially, culturally. I think that’s when and where the movement began. It took off in a very different direction than the Senate would have had us go.
It wasn’t just the first national conversation about sexual harassment. It was, as far as I know, the first national conversation examining how men talk to women, in which the inappropriate things that men say in private were put out in a public realm to be examined. People were dissecting everything you said, and that Clarence Thomas had said. And many people didn’t appear to be ready to talk about that as a human experience, rather than a political one.
Well, that’s part of what happened. But part of that was deliberate. Part of the way the hearing got framed was a deliberate effort on the part of Senator Simpson and Senator [Arlen] Specter not to get to that human experience. Because to them, it was really all about the politics. So they wanted to make sure that as the hearings went forward, it was shaped in that way. If you just think about Senator Simpson’s comments—first of all, he makes this distinction between “real harassment” and what I experienced. Whatever that means. Then he turns the whole idea of sexual harassment into, as he calls it, “this sexual harassment crap.” Because, he says, what we really ought to be talking about is politics, and how Washington functions, rather than the human experience. So the fact that we couldn’t get there was because we didn’t have any leadership in Washington who had a vested interest in getting us to the human experience.
That’s incredible that there was no pushback against that at the time. Today a senator absolutely could not say “this sexual harassment crap.” There would be consequences. For instance, the example you brought up about the aide who made the Facebook comments about Obama’s daughters. That aide was forced to resign.
But where was the leadership response to the aide? The public is leading this conversation. I think it’s an interesting exercise in democracy that we’re experiencing. Think about what’s going on on college campuses. The movements are being driven by young women who are taking on this issue. In most cases, certainly not by the university leadership.
A moment in the documentary that I had forgotten about—even though it wasn’t that long ago, and it made the national news at the time—was the 2010 phone call from Clarence Thomas’ wife, in which she asks you to apologize. It’s a great opening to the film, because it’s so shocking, and it shows how two decades later, your testimony still haunts our consciousness, not just at a political level, but also a personal one. Getting that call must have been bizarre in so many ways.
I did think at the time that it was a prank call. Just because I couldn’t believe that that would be happening. Even though Mrs. Thomas had at one point said in an interview that I owed her an apology, I still wasn’t ready to believe that she would call and demand one. So it was shocking, but I also think if you listen to the language of the message, it asks for an explanation. And I think what the film proceeded to do was attempt to give an explanation of what happened, and why.
It’s fascinating to compare your demeanor in the film’s archival footage of your testimony, in which you maintain an intense calm at all times no matter how outrageous the senators’ questions get, with the recent footage of you in which you seem so vibrant and happy and relaxed. It’s a more complete picture of you that few of us got to see back then. Looking at the footage now, do you remember there being pressure to act a certain way?
Well, of course you’re testifying in front of all those cameras, at a very different point in your life. I think it’s just impossible to compare that situation to any of the other footage you would see in the film. I’m sure there were times back in 1991 when I was just as relaxed, but that situation wasn’t one of them.
What was it like for you to watch the film?
It was very intense. It was painful. The most emotional moment for me was when my family comes into the hearing room. But it was also painful watching other people go through it, as well—not just to see me in front of the committee, but to see the people who were trying to persuade the Senate to reopen the hearings, and to hear my testimony. Then to see the reactions that she showed of women to some of the comments made by the senators. It came out and hit women in ways they hadn’t expected, even in 1991. There’s a lot to be learned from just the reactions of people in the film. The intensity with which everybody she captured felt those hearings. I think if you videotaped any of those individuals now, you’d probably see the same kind of differences between how they felt then, and how they feel now.
I guess the difference for me is they were outside the hearings, and they got to show their emotions. In the film, you can see their very intense reactions, like you said. But here you were in the most crazy, chaotic time in your life—
I hope so. I hope I don’t have to experience something crazier.
And you had to deal with people thinking “Well, if she’s a legitimate witness, she’ll hold it together.” You didn’t get to have emotions.
Well, what you have to realize is that there were people who said I wasn’t legitimate because I held it together. They were ready to interpret any kind of reaction that I had, whether it was holding it together or losing it, or being angry, or being sad. Everything was subject to interpretation—and for those who were the detractors, to be used against me. So I don’t think that anyone said, “you must perform in a certain way.” The best that I could do was just sort of be who I was at that moment.
In your work as a professor, legal analyst and media commentator, you can be called on to offer your view of any number of issues that intersect with those events two decades ago: Supreme Court rulings during Clarence Thomas’ tenure, gender issues in the workplace, etc. How much do you have to separate out and examine your personal feelings on such issues?
Well, I think my personal feelings of course are involved. But everyone’s are—it’s just that some people don’t know it. What you have to do is be honest about that. You have to be able to then use your skills and training to do an analysis. And you also have to inform yourself, you can’t simply rely on your gut reaction necessarily. You have to weigh things. And that comes from training, as a teacher as well as a lawyer. I can be more objective, or look at it in more of an academic way, but I always try to strike some balance. Because I think some of these issues that are so integrated into one’s personal experience, they’ll demand a certain kind of empathy to be truly appreciated. So, I sort of apologize for being personally involved, but then I keep going and doing what I do.