Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Anita Hill opens up about power dynamics in documentary ‘Anita’

Published: March 21, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories

Over 20 years ago, a young African-American woman named Anita Hill faced a panel of 14 older white males of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Hill endured uncomfortable and awkward questioning from the panel as she testified against Thomas for sexual harassment that occurred while she worked as an aide in the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s.

Now, Hill’s story will be available to a new generation of people who were born after the hearing. A documentary based on her life, “Anita,” opens Friday, Mar. 21, in theaters in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

Hill is a senior advisor to the provost and a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management. She joined Brandeis in 1998. Though few students on campus were alive during the hearings, they will have the opportunity to learn from her experiences and see how circumstances around claims of sexual harassment have or have not changed.

According to The New York Times, Hill felt that, in 2010, it was the right time “to revisit this, and for people to understand who I am.” She spoke with Academy Award winner Frieda Mock about making the documentary, and Mock directed the film.

“People misunderstand [and they think] that harassment is about the sex. It’s really about control and power, and abusing it,” Hill says in a preview of the upcoming documentary.

“About four years ago, I realized that an entire generation of people had been born since the hearings and they were going to go into the workplace, into universities, into the military … and they didn’t quite know how we got to that place,” Hill said in an interview on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on March 13. She hopes people can understand the history and learn from it.

She never meant to become a symbol. When the Senate held hearings for Thomas, they approached her and asked if she had any information to share. “I just realized, you have this information, it’s relevant to the process, you have to come forward. You owe it to yourself, but you owe it to the integrity of the court and the profession that you’re part of,” she said on “The Daily Show.” “They called me!”

“I can’t even imagine a hearing today where a woman would come forth with an accusation of sexual harassment and it would be ignored,” Nita Lowey (D-NY) said to The New York Times. Lowey was one of the women who spoke to the Senate in 1991, demanding that Hill act as a witness to her testimony.

On “The Daily Show,” she talked about how an unrepresentative group of people in the Senate causes issues to be debated among people who know nothing about other people’s lives. In 1991, there were only 2 female senators in the Senate, and there were 34 women in the House of Representatives. Today in 2014, there are 20 female senators and 79 women (of 435 total members) in the House. While women are still highly underrepresented, it is certainly a significant change.

In 1991, many women encountered sexual harassment, but few made their claims public. Men seemed to not think there was a problem and harassment was not a popular topic of conversation. “Even if they acknowledged that it happened, they refused to acknowledge that it mattered,” Hill said on “The Daily Show.”

The documentary comes at a time when many people are becoming more aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. On Jan. 25, President Obama spoke about establishing the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault. This fall, Brandeis has hired a sexual assault prevention specialist, Sheila McMahon. Most recently, students have created a website to share stories of sexual harassment and assault, called SpeakOut!Brandeis.

As The Hoot reported in Oct. 2010, Justice Thomas’ wife, Virginia Thomas, called Anita Hill and left a voicemail, demanding an apology for her accusations. In an interview with The Hoot, Hill said that she had “no intention of apologizing or explaining my testimony.”

On Thursday, April 3, Hill will participate in a Q&A at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, open only to the Brandeis community for $8. “Anita” opens in Waltham and Cambridge on April 4.