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Nation remembers Anita Hill testimony

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: Front Page


It has been 20 years since Anita Hill, then a law professor at Oklahoma, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for what she called “the most difficult experience of my life.”

“It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone,” Hill told 14 United States senators, before telling the nation that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, while employing her in the government, had harassed her with sexually-charged comments, talk of pornographic crush videos and boasts of his personal sexual prowess.

Hill’s allegations were both lurid and specific. Thomas, she claimed, purported to find pubic hair on his Coke can; told Hill that he was particularly pleasing to women during oral sex; and demanded a necessary reason why she had “said no to him.” Hill also asserted that when she left his office to begin teaching law, Thomas admitted to her that if she ever talked about his conduct, it would “ruin his career.”

For his part, Thomas said that he “categorically denied all of the allegations,” and he even “denied that I ever attempted to date Anita Hill” or expressed any romantic interest in her that could have been conceived as harassment.

The then-sitting D.C. circuit judge went further, saying that since these false accusations were put to him by the FBI, he had experienced a fundamental change in his emotional state.

“I have never, in all my life, felt such hurt, such pain, such agony,” Thomas said in his testimony. “My family and I have been done a grave and irreparable injustice. During the past two weeks, I lost the belief that if I did my best all would work out.”

Opinion polls conducted during the hearings portrayed an American public that was deeply skeptical of Hill—Thomas was only the second African-American nominated to the high court, succeeding the first, Justice Thurgood Marshall. The Judiciary Committee, then-chaired by Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden, who stopped calling witnesses who were “pro-Anita Hill,” sent the nomination to the full house. The Senate, by the most narrow vote margin in more than 100 years, confirmed Thomas 52-48.

Two decades later

Hill, now a national figure, left in disgrace. She has said in rare interviews that she found it difficult to date under the spotlight and labored to move on in her professional career.

She joined Brandeis in 1998, teaching first in the Women’s and Gender Studies program before joining the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Several of her colleagues, who she met at Brandeis, attended a conference held for her, “Anita Hill 20 Years Later: Sex, Power and Speaking Truth,” in New York this past Saturday. The conference brought together activists, legal experts from Hill’s 1991 team and other scholars to discuss the hearings and their aftermath.

“It was unbelievably powerful, and I’ve attended dozens if not hundreds of other academic conferences,” Professor Joyce Antler, chair of American Studies, said. “Rarely has there been one of this magnitude in terms of its cultural relevance.”

The conference contained one panel on the hearing, with another of younger panelists to discuss the impact since.

The conference included legal luminaries, like Charles Ogletree of Harvard and Judith Resnick of Yale, who were on Hill’s legal team or had expertise in race relations, and longtime women’s rights leader Gloria Steinem.

According to Professor Susan Lanser (ENG), there were more than 2,200 registrants for the packed event. It was a full house that “made anything that we have a Brandeis look positively tiny” by comparison.

“There were so many groups, activists, artists and scholars that have taken what she did and carried the cause forward,” Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) said.

“And how we move forward was the question,” she added. “Anita Hill is so positive and forward-looking, and embodied that sense at the conference.”

Brooten also gave an anecdote that when one young woman raised a good point, Hill interrupted and asked her, “Do you have plans for a book? Do you have an outline for a book?”

Many in the Hunter College auditorium criticized now-Vice President Biden, and Antler said Thomas may not have been confirmed, since it was by such a slim margin, “had the hearings not been cut short by Biden.”

Steinem, though, made a bold claim to much applause: “Clarence Thomas may be on the Supreme Court, but Dominique Strauss-Kahn will never be president of France.”

Applause lines and other positive chants punctuated the conference, an entirely different atmosphere than the tense Senate chamber.

“Being at this conference really took you back and back 20 years. It was a revelatory moment when the day began with Anita Hill, in her blue dress, before 14 white, male senators,” Antler said.

“They were almost vitriolic in belittling her,” she continued, saying, “the senators attacked who she was and even her ability to bring this up.”

“We saw the Senate vote and Anita did not win—but this was a watershed moment when you saw the injustice of the system. Anita Hill spoke and there was no going back,” Antler said. “For legal history, sexual and gender history, and I’d even say it is up there with the work of Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Legacy

Antler went so far as to compare it to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Challenger shuttle explosion—“mothers and daughters asked each other, ‘Where were you when Anita testified?’”