For Anita Hill, the Clarence Thomas hearings haven’t really ended

October 6, 2011

Twenty years ago, when Anita Hill returned home from the contentious Senate hearings during which she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, people told her not to worry — her name would be forgotten in a matter of months.

But two things have become clear this week as she has re-entered the debate: The raw tensions over race, gender and politics raised by the hearings have not been forgotten. And Anita Hill is acting like a woman who wants her name remembered.

She is stepping back into the news by choice, giving a series of interviews about a book she released this week on issues of gender and race called “Reimagining Equality.” And she is attending seminars focused on the anniversary of the Thomas hearings, having become over the years a minor political celebrity.

For many, Hill embodies the fight against sexual harassment and gender discrimination, even as she triggers vitriol from others who dismiss her testimony as a partisan attack against Thomas.

“The hearing had for me an unexpected consequence,” Hill said in an interview. “I just didn’t have any sense that it was going to resonate in the way that it did. It has been kind of difficult for me.”

While Thomas went on to the Supreme Court, where he has become a consistent conservative voice, Hill has led a relatively quiet life in Massachusetts. She teaches social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University, delivers lectures on sexual harassment and now has written two books. The first book, “Speaking Truth to Power,” was published in 1998 and dealt with her experience during the hearings.

Now, she is likely to be returning to Washington often after joining the District-based law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll as an adviser to its civil rights and employment practice group. She also will soon become the special counsel to the provost at Brandeis.

The enduring tensions over the hearings became clear to Hill last October when she received a voice-mail message from Thomas’s wife, Virginia, requesting an apology for Hill’s testimony in those 1991 hearings. After Hill reported the call to her employers and it broke in the news, she received a slew of e-mails and phone calls from supporters and opponents.

“People are really still feeling this,” said Hill, who rejected the call for an apology, saying she initially thought the message was a prank. “That gut reaction [people felt] in 1991 still has not gone away.”

In October of that year, Hill was a 35-year-old lawyer who had worked for Thomas at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As a key witness at his nomination hearings, she brought graphic accusations against him before a Senate panel, detailing lurid and harassing sexual statements, which Thomas vehemently denied. The controversy gripped the country.

The hearings also changed the trajectory of Hill’s life. The questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, then a panel of white men, was “hurtful,” she said, and she does not believe a white woman would have met the same reception. But she also said she does not regret her involvement.

“My concern was that I had information about the fitness of an individual who was going to sit on the highest court of the land,” Hill said.

After Thomas’s confirmation, she stepped away from Washington, but the hearings have been a constant shadow. Thomas wrote in his 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” that Hill was a “combative left-winger” who was “touchy” and prone to overreacting to “slights.” She has denied his accusations and said she does not closely follow his work on the Supreme Court.

For years after the hearings, Hill focused her scholarly work on issues of sexual harrassment, saying she felt compelled to raise the matter. Looking back, she and others believe the hearings were something of a turning point on gender.

“Sexual harassment was something women didn’t even want to speak about,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), one of the speakers at a day-long event Thursday at Georgetown Law Center titled “Context and Consequences: The Hill-Thomas Hearings Twenty Years Later.”

“They felt cornered by it. They felt trapped by it,” Norton said. “Something had to be done. We had to talk about it.”

The conference at Georgetown Law drew young feminists and academics, including Hannah Gordon, a 22-year-old intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation, who said she grew up learning about Hill and the hearings.

“For my generation, it’s a very different circumstance,” said Gordon, who circulated the room requesting signatures for a petition asking the Justice Department to do away with the term “forcible rape,” which the group considers outdated. “I was taught you shouldn’t take sexual harassment,” she said.

Norton, one of seven women in Congress who publicly demanded that the Senate hear from Hill, said the “most important” result of the hearings was the large number of women elected to Congress in 1992.

“It is very hard to think of any legal proceedings that had the effect of the Anita Hill hearings in the sense that women clearly went to the polls with the notion in mind that you had to have more women in Congress.”

Speaking Thursday at the gathering, Hill sounded almost celebratory.

“I could not be happier than I am right now because I know that testimony, no matter what anyone said and no matter who sits on the bench today, I know that testimony was not in vain,” she said as she closed the conference. “I have lived with the issues of the hearings for 20 years now. I know the work that is being done and as I hear it I am encouraged.”

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Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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