In 1991, more than 20 million TV viewers watched as a well-regarded young law professor named Anita Hill accused her former boss, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment—and in return was smeared as a pathological liar, a would-be political assassin, and a prude. Thomas made it to the Supreme Court, and Hill vanished into academia—but not before changing the way we think about men and women in the workplace.
On October 11, 1991, the 35-year-old faced a grilling by 14 white male senators, many of them furious that she had delayed their march to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. The topic was his alleged sexual harassment of her when she worked at the Department of Education and, later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but the tone of the hearings clearly implied that the Republican senators were out to prove her a liar. Carried by the networks and PBS over three days of near-continuous coverage, Hill's accounts of Thomas's describing the length of his penis and enjoying pornography involving animals reached more than 20 million American households. Beyond that, CNN carried the testimony worldwide to an audience so rapt, Hill has been recognized on the streets of South Africa and Bhutan.
Even today, for many people Anita Hill is a hero. If she didn't actively seek her place in front of the senate committee, once there she held her ground: outing not only Clarence Thomas for creating what she said was a hostile work environment but also, arguably, the gender bias of the United States Senate and every harasser in every workplace across America. Yet in coming forward, Anita Hill was also branded everything from a delusional, bitter prude to a sexual deviant. Her home phone rang incessantly with death threats. Despite Hill's courage, Clarence Thomas went on to the Supreme Court, while she spent half of the next decade in agony.
In so many instances, our heroes are alive for us in the moment of their daring and then fade from view. We never learn how they deal with their everyday lives after the historical record moves on to other climaxes. Does a whistle-blower sleep easy at night? What's the worst challenge he or she endures in coming forward? How does one construct a next step in life amid fame and infamy?
We Hear You!