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? Who Is She—Really?
Meeting Anita Hill is evidence that the days eventually get better. "It's a good life," she says, now a relaxed 49-year-old professor of social policy, law, and women's studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. But that good life didn't emerge overnight.
At the time of the hearings, the public knew little about Anita Hill beyond the nature of her complaints regarding Thomas. Through her testimony, she revealed that she had graduated from Yale Law School, joined the Department of Education, where she first worked with Thomas, and moved on to the EEOC with him. In her azure blue suit, she looked like a church lady—slightly naive, a little prim.
Behind the general sketch, however, was a woman who definitely would not be pushed around; her family had put up with an awful lot already. Her parents were the grandchildren of slaves on all sides. Married in their mid-teens, they started working on an Oklahoma farm for 75 cents a day and raised 13 children, Anita being the youngest. Remarkably, for such a large, poor African-American family, high aspirations were not an option; they were required. The fact that most of the kids went to college—including the eldest daughter, at a time when it was rare for a black woman to hold a white-collar job—stuns even Hill. "To think that these very young parents out on a farm in Oklahoma wanted their first daughter—their daughter—to go to college, and just really insisted on it…," she says. "I think they were way ahead of their time."
Hill lived up to the family's academic expectations and did her best to mark her environment in small ways. Girls in her high school, for example, enrolled in four years of home economics; many joined the Future Homemakers of America. Hill instead signed up for soil judging with the Future Farmers of America, lining up alongside the boys in their blue corduroy jackets with embroidered chapter names and medallions. "None of the girls were doing it. I was good at it. I grew up on a farm. Why couldn't I judge soil as well as any guy?" she says, laughing.
She avidly followed the 1960s civil rights marches and sit-ins. The feminist movement appealed to her, with its combination of street activism and courtroom battles. As an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University, Hill found research biology yielding to law as her area of interest. "I liked the professionalism of the women lawyers," she says. "They were people who were really bringing about change." Meeting Clarence Thomas
After graduating from Yale in 1980, Hill went to Washington, D.C., to work for a private law firm. In 1981 she met Clarence Thomas, eight years her senior, who was sharing an apartment with a mutual friend, having recently separated from his wife. When Thomas received a Reagan appointment to the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, he offered Hill a job as his assistant, and she accepted. Their relationship was initially friendly, Hill says. Thomas spoke of black solidarity and the importance of civil rights. He confided in her about his political and personal problems as he negotiated Washington's minefields. But according to Hill, the friendly professional interaction gave way to a dating interest on Thomas's part. He started by asking her out. Then he pressed her about why she wouldn't date him. Soon, she says, he was describing to her pornographic movies involving group sex, rape scenes, and animals. Growing increasingly anxious, Hill talked about it all constantly with her friend Ellen Wells, who knew Thomas when they both worked in the office of Senator John Danforth. Hill and Wells discussed what she might do to deflect the behavior, including changing perfume.
All this history, Hill believes, should have been uncovered soon after Thomas's nomination on July 1, 1991. Political appointees typically get an extensive FBI background check—including questioning of former coworkers—and Hill's charges could have been weighed by the subcommittee in private. But no one approached her at the University of Oklahoma, where she was then teaching, nor, as far as she is aware, did anyone contact staffers she had been in touch with at the Department of Education or the EEOC—not at first, anyway.
Rumors of Thomas's behavior toward Hill, however, soon surfaced within the Washington political circuit. Some senate Democrats were thrilled to find another reason to stall Thomas's confirmation. And Republicans were ready to fight. "For George Bush, I think it was political," Hill says. "You know: They can't object to him. I'm going to get someone in there to further my ideological agenda, but he'll be untouchable because I am going to use his race to protect him—and me—from the attacks." During the Hearings
The overwhelming emotion Hill felt at the time was sadness. Democrats were cowed, she thinks, because they were neither interested in nor prepared to take on the issue of sexual harassment. Republicans had put down their political stakes and would guard them whether or not it was good for the Supreme Court or the country. She cites the moment Senator Arlen Specter accused her of "flat-out perjury": "Now that made me angry."
Unknown to most people during the hearings, Hill was in terrible pain from fibroids so severe, she would undergo surgery to remove 18 tumors two months later. But other than the perspiration that made her forehead glisten—which Hill says was, unfortunately, a common response of her body to stress—she gave little evidence of being intimidated by her circumstances. "Someone said to me," Hill remembers, "'We're hearing all these rumors that he's going to withdraw his name.' And I said, 'No way, I know him better than that.'" Indeed, after she testified, an irate Thomas, back in the witness seat, accused the senators of engaging in a "high-tech lynching." They confirmed him four days later, on October 15, 1991.
Beyond enduring public fallout and fibroid surgery, Hill, back home in Oklahoma, found her job threatened. She endured random rude remarks from strangers and condemnations to hell. Some African-Americans accused her of betraying her race by challenging the promotion of a black man. Men and women who identified with her confessed their most painful stories: "I'd run into people who would be crying because this hearing evoked so much of their own life experiences—not only sexual harassment but also childhood abuse and any number of things that people felt helpless to do something about," says Hill. The responsibility of representing their agonies weighed heavily on her. Since the Hearings
Since the Hill hearings, sexual harassment and power dynamics in the office have made big news. During the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal—though their interaction fell into the area of consensual relations—Hill was deeply bothered by the potential damage to interns who didn't want to engage in that kind of behavior in order to get favor in the White House. She also believed it sent a bad message to the country about the role women are supposed to play. Still, she felt sympathy for Lewinsky, who was a decade younger than Hill had been, with no career to fall back on, when she faced testifying and the resulting public scrutiny. "And she clearly had a very emotional attachment to the president. I did not have that burden," Hill says.
Hill can watch events like this from outside the fray, but her moment in the news may not be over yet. An appointment to the Supreme Court is for life, so Thomas's position is safe. With Chief Justice William Rehnquist possibly stepping down after the session ends in late June, however, court watchers wonder who might replace him. When previously asked about federal judicial appointments, Bush has said he would select judges like Thomas and Antonin Scalia, indicating a preference for such conservatives. That leads people to wonder whether Thomas might get the nod for chief justice. Hill would like to think that the president will not make that choice. "I think he realizes that he's going to have some battles and this one may not even be worth it," she says. "And I don't know that even Karl Rove is willing to take this one on." Still, Bush has proved himself disinterested in the notion of conserving political capital for a later date, and Thomas was his father's man.
Hill has no desire to disturb the hard-won tranquility it took her more than a decade to establish, but life has also made her less cautious about taking risks. "What are they going to do to me?" she says. "By the time somebody has called you a liar, a psychotic, and incompetent, there's not much left to hurl at you. Having survived all that, I'm not too worried about what else can be done. And I don't necessarily see the benefit in being guarded, because I was quite guarded before and it didn't help. That's really not a protection." Spoken like a true whistle-blower.
Do you believe you are a victim of sexual harassment at work? Share your story. If your story qualifies, it may be selected by a law firm for pro bono representation and featured in O, The Oprah Magazine.
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, June 19, 2013