What ever happened to Anita Hill? Since her unforgettable testimony against Clarence Thomas, she has spent six years dodging the spotlight. Now she's back with an autobiography about her past, her motivations and life after the hearings.
By Patricia J.Williams
Fashion editor: Robbin Raskin Solis
Are you a scorned woman?" asked Senator Howell Heflin. "Do you have a martyr complex? Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?"
So went the senatorial quizzing of Anita Hill that riveted a nation. As she faced the Senate Judiciary Committee in their dark gray suits on that October day in 1991, Hill, a graduate of Yale Law School who had worked as an assistant to Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas a decade before, was struck by a peculiar thought: "I questioned my decision to wear bright blue linen."
It is almost funny, this climactic moment of sudden entrance onto a world stage ‑and the anxiety is ... Did I wear the right thing? Yet the question marked Hill's dawning realization of the powerful media equation of surface presentation with inner substance. "What I was thinking was, People are going to judge me for what I wear," says the now 43‑year‑old Hill. "Look at what happens when someone thinks you don't conform. Look at Marcia Clark, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Even when there are much more important things about to happen, there are these profound political judgments made about appearance: Do you look like someone who is credible?"
Caught in her spotlighted blue linen suit, Hill testified that Thomas had inappropriately used his position as her superior at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to pressure her for dates. Alleging that he had sexualized their professional encounters with relentless and graphic references to his sexual desires, she described comments about pornographic films involving bestiality, group sex and rape, comments about her body, comments about whether her hair or her dress rendered her more or less sexually attractive to him in this or that way. The testimony asserted that Thomas talked right over Hill's repeated protestations, and right through meetings whose official agendas were the reports on legal issues that she had prepared for him.
The questions of power, control and professional propriety raised by Hill's assertions were never seriously addressed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The senators seemed not to "get" that this might be about the politics of the boardroom rather than about the privacy of Thomas' bedroom. To many this failure to acknowledge even the possibility of a so‑called "hostile workplace environment" was particularly troubling considering that Thomas, under Reagan, had headed the EEOC, the agency charged with enforcing policy regarding sex discrimination. Instead, the hearings were transformed from an inquiry regarding Thomas' fitness to serve on the Supreme Court into a test of whether Anita Hill could prove she wasn't subject to hallucinations. Before the hearings' end, Hill would be not merely officially disregarded but accused of lynching, perjury, incompetence, man‑hating, erotomania, feeblemindedness, vengeance and conspiracy.
Nor would life after the hearings get any easier. Senator Alan Simpson (who at one point muttered into his microphone that Hill's claim was "sexual harassment crap") predicted ominously, "She will be injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed, real harassment, different from the sexual kind, just plain old Washington variety harassment." As Hill writes of those apocalyptic words, "Although Simpson apologized after the hearings… he could not take back the twin messages they sent: that sexual harassment is not real, and that complaints about sexual harassment should be met with 'real harassment.' I will not count the number of times ... that I have been threatened with sodomy, rape, assault and other forms of sexual and nonsexual violence. Some of the callers have used almost the same words: 'Now you will know what real harassment is like."
In the six years since the hearings, Hill's image has been invoked to swing elections one way or another and to argue for both tougher and looser laws governing sex discrimination. To a broad cross section of society she is a courageous heroine, but to a powerful few she remains the object of crudely expressed and cartoonish stereotypes ‑"a little bit nutty, a little bit slutty" (as so succinctly put by David Brock, a right‑wing journalist and the author of The Real Anita Hill).
So who is the real Anita Hill? What happens, after C‑SPAN, to a woman so enigmatically iconic in the public imagination? Is it possible to have a “real life” after a senator has forever linked your name and exorcism? When Oklahoma State legislator Leonard Sullivan marks you as "a cancerous growth," do you simply throw on an old sweater and pop down to the store for a jar of applesauce?
If the controversy has died down, the repercussions of the hearings continue to haunt Hill's private and professional life. At the University of Oklahoma Law Center, she found it difficult to obtain a sabbatical she had earned after six years of teaching, or even a leave without pay. A research professorship in her name was stymied by the legislature, despite an outpouring of donations sufficient for its endowment. Even friends who publicly supported her during the hearings have been so hounded by anonymous calls, letters and, says Hill, "little parcels of fecal material" that some have chosen to move away from Oklahoma rather than endure the ongoing abuse. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hill resigned from her tenured position and left her office last winter, her job made untenable by the intense scrutiny and overt political pressure placed upon the university.
Not long after Hill's resignation, I met with her in New York City. When I arrived at her hotel, I stated my business to the concierge. He studied me and my ungainly black saddlebag filled with notepads and tape‑recording equipment, and then accompanied me to the elevator where he unlocked the button to her floor. (My guess: You don't pop out for applesauce.)
I found the interlude unsettling, and I asked Hill about this kind of confinement. She shrugged like it was no big deal, then said with a sigh: "Of course, I've installed a security system in my home, and I'm much more cautious about where I stay. I try to keep a low profile." Her voice was soft, quick, offhand. She stopped, and then continued with a reflectiveness that was anything but offhand: "At the same time, I don't want to adapt to that under‑siege mentality or let it become so much a part of my life that I become immobilized. I can't live in fear all the time." Despite the bomb threats and hate mail that plague her from time to time, Hill has remained remarkably even keeled and very much focused on the positive. She talked quietly of the crates of supportive mail she continues to receive and of the people from all walks of life who have written to say that her story inspired them to take action themselves.
Now Hill has written an autobiography, Speaking Truth to Power, just published by Doubleday. Sure to surprise those of all political persuasions who thought they knew what she stands for, the book is a subtly complex exposition of the paradoxical blessings and banes that have beset her since the hearings. Unlike many celebrity books, it is neither slapdash nor ghostwritten, but rather an inspiring, elegantly written saga. The narrative covers not just the hearings but the circumstances that brought her family from slavery to the present, from Arkansas to the promise of farmland and opportunity that Oklahoma represented at the turn of the century. She weaves in stories of her parents' and grandparents' lives as well as her own, presenting a fascinating slice of rural black American history and bringing an intimate significance to the panoply of civil rights laws, judicial decisions and grassroots organizing that led to the racial integration of her elementary school and college, and ultimately to the opening of Yale's doors to women.
Speaking Truth to Power is not the first book Hill has worked on since 1991. She has undertaken a study of the relationship between free‑speech concerns and the verbal nature of many harassment claims, and she has coedited a collection of essays entitled Race, Gender and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill‑Thomas Hearings (Oxford University), published in 1995. But this new book is sure to be the most controversial, for it deals directly with what, innocently pre‑O.J., we had all thought was the media spectacle of the 20th century. In describing what prompted her to testify against Thomas, Hill says that she had always thought it best to disregard the experiences she had had while working with him. "For years," she writes of the decision that changed her life, "I had spent considerable time and effort convincing myself that what happened to me no longer mattered." But when Thomas was nominated, "I was forced to consider that it did matter‑that the behavior was not only an offense to me but unfitting for someone who would sit on the Supreme Court ... [that it] mattered to me as an attorney and as a citizen."
How much it mattered, and to how many, is history. Even now the Hill‑Thomas hearings remains an invisibly wired mine, a lightning rod of divisions that can break up a good cocktail party as quick as you can blink. Nevertheless, it seems we are also in a moment of some particularly intense backlash. Much publicized stories of highly exceptional and spectacularly trivial cases ‑six‑year‑olds suspended from school for kissing other six‑year‑olds, and lovesick military personnel in terror for their careers‑have done much to obscure the more insidiously normative character of sexual harassment endured by so many women of all socioeconomic levels. In this regard, Speaking Truth to Power is a veritable trove of facts. Hill lays out the law of sex discrimination, its evolution, investigative procedures and standards for fact‑finding. She takes a magnifying glass to a host of popular clichés about what constitutes sexual harassment and puts them to the test in the context of real cases: from Benjamin Chavis, once executive director of the NAACP, to William Aramony, former head of the United Way, both of whom showered their mistresses with funds misappropriated from their respective organizations; from the travails of Dr. Frances Conley of Stanford Medical School, whose colleagues fondled her while she was performing surgery, to those of Paula Coughlin, who alerted the world to the Tailhook scandal. Of particular interest will surely be Hill's thoughtful and sympathetic consideration of the Paula Jones case. Despite Jones' media affiliation with "some of the very people who may have dismissed my claim and, worse, accused me of a variety of wrongdoing," the most negative pronouncement Hill makes is simply to observe that "the fact that Ms. Jones' supporters have never indicated a sympathy to sexual harassment makes me extremely skeptical of her judgment in relying on them for advice."
Anita Hill today.
For all the lucidity and balance of Hill's insights, some critics will undoubtedly think they know exactly where to put this book -right under "heard it all before." Yet the degree to which Hill has endured easy dismissal is an important part of Speaking Truth to Power. After all, during the hearings, Heflin asked Hill if she were intending to write a book, implying that writing about the proceedings would be as much 'motive" as militancy or martyrdom. "No, I am not," answered Hill at that time.
Yet, over the years, Hill has found that her silence has allowed too many others to speak for her. She has come to see Heflin's question as a kind of thinly veiled injunction, an undercurrent of "don't you dare." "It's a lot of what has been going on since the hearings," she tells me. "Don't you dare write a book, don't you dare speak, don't you dare take any money.' All of the things that are self‑expressive have been held against me. So it took me a while to decide to do this. Yes, I get paid for writing the book," Hill adds matter‑of‑factly. "I worked hard on it. And I hope it does well."
It's a testimony to Hill's courage, and to her sense of justice, that she is prepared to risk more negative‑as well as positive-attention by speaking out a second time. Raised in a world where women did not often voice their convictions in public, Hill worshiped with her family at a church where women and men prayed on opposite sides of the aisle. As she writes in Speaking Truth to Power, she never thought much about that gender segregation as a child‑or indeed about many of the racial lines that divided her family's life from white neighbors. "The lines were pretty clear," says Hill. "For example, growing up in the Baptist church, women didn't preach. Since I have been an adult, I have gone to a church where a woman decided she wanted to preach, and it created quite a stir." Hill's actions in speaking out against Thomas proved equally unsettling: The attempt to silence her was not, of course, limited to those in positions of political power. Many African‑American citizens‑men and women alike‑were worried that her testimony put gender issues in irreconcilable tension with a historical fear of racial vulnerability.
It's a problem that arises, she observes, "when women or blacks or whoever try to cross over the line and become assertive in places that aren't part of the defined existence." By doing so they risk censure or exile. "It's even harder now because the pretense is that these lines no longer exist," Hill says. "But there are many, many invisible lines."
The last statement is said with such emphatic gravity that I ask Hill if she is referring to something specific. She begins to talk about her expectations when she left the EEOC because of her problems with Thomas: "I was so young, 26 or 27. I really thought, I can walk away from this. But it was very difficult to just be indignant, walk away and never again have any contact with him. The EEOC was a significant part of my professional life." She is referring to the dozen or so calls that she made to Thomas' office in the years after she left. Despite the fact that those calls were always at the behest of others wishing to use her former connection to him for their own political access, it was this contact that the Judiciary Committee made much of in impugning her assertions that Thomas had harassed her.
"In some ways I think I was incredibly naive," she says. "In other ways I think I was somewhat arrogant‑arrogant in the sense that I thought I could have it my way at some point. I didn't want to let his bad behavior cheat me out of every benefit of my good work. I didn't realize that when you're discriminated against in professional jobs, it doesn't just leave you when you walk away. It becomes part of your reputation, part of your résumé."
I ask how her personal life has been affected by the hearings. "It's ridiculous to think you can go through all of this public trauma and not have it affect your relationships," she says thoughtfully. Does she have a boyfriend? "I'm not seeing anyone," Hill says. But she quickly adds, "To say that I don't have a boyfriend because of the hearings oversimplifies it. What I do think is that this whole public‑spectacle aspect will make it very difficult from here on to find someone who is able to deal with the public part of my life, as well as the private. Relationships are hard enough without all this other baggage."
Hill does not know whether she will teach again, though she hopes to keep a base in Oklahoma to be near her family. "I plan to continue to write and pursue my research," she says, "but that work is not going to mean going to an office or a classroom every day. I see some of the limitations reliance on an institution can have: When it fails you, well ... it becomes important to step back and try to create a life that is productive and creative and meaningful." She pauses, as though poised at the edge of something undefinable. I prod a bit. This book, another book, maybe. Beyond that she really does not know. A game little smile, another small shrug. There is a certain air about her, a kind of determined peace, a patient intelligence.
It is getting late in the day. I take my leave, haunted by that demeanor, that combined sense of luminous resolve‑and of limbo.