Anita Hill just wants everyone to be clear. A few seconds into my question about her "allegations" concerning Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, she politely, but firmly, interjects.
"When you say 'allegations,' it suggests that I was bringing some kind of claim against someone," she says, apologizing for the interruption. "That was not the case. I was giving testimony about my experience of working for an individual, testimony that read to the character and the qualification of an individual who was going to be sitting on the highest court of the country and given a lifetime appointment to that court. A lot of people have been confused by this kind of language — 'allegations' and 'trial.' People start to ask whether I proved my case. Then they say, 'Wait a minute. If she didn't prove it, then why do we even care about it?' "
Twenty years after that testimony, people certainly do still care about it. The anniversary this month has prompted numerous reflections on how Hill's account of sexually inappropriate behavior by Thomas — her former boss at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — transformed the nation's views on sexual harassment in the workplace.
Last week Hill, now a professor of law, social policy and women's studies at Brandeis University, was honored at a retrospective conference at New York's Hunter College on the social impact of the Clarence Thomas hearings. The occasion has also refueled criticism from skeptics convinced that she lied.
Questioning her motives for coming forward with her claims, Thomas supporters point out that she only brought them up years after the fact, when he was a Supreme Court nominee. An unfazed Hill shrugs off the controversy surrounding her. "I understand that people will believe differently, but I ask them to look at the record," she says. "It was truthful testimony, it was important testimony, and I have no regrets for having made it."
Hill never intended to have an open confrontation with Thomas. Her private statements to the FBI regarding Thomas' conduct were made public only after being leaked to the press shortly before the final Senate vote. Once she was called to testify, senators grilled her on the stand for days.
Her exhaustive testimony turned the proceedings into must-see television. Hill said that Thomas frequently talked about pornography in the office, referencing bestiality and a porno-film character named Long Dong Silver, in addition to boasting of his own sexual prowess. She claimed that he pressured her for dates and, in the hearing's most infamous anecdote, suggested to her that someone had put pubic hairs on his can of Coca-Cola. Thomas denied the accusations.
Part of the record that Hill wants people to consider are the witnesses who could have corroborated her testimony but were prevented from taking the stand. The decision made by Sen. Joe Biden, then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, not to call any witnesses favorable to Hill single-handedly pitted her word against Thomas'.
"When I found out that those witnesses were not going to be called, I was, quite frankly, shocked," says Hill of several women who waited in the wings to testify, such as Angela Wright, a former Thomas subordinate with similar sexual harassment claims. "One woman had even gotten out of her hospital bed to make herself available to testify.
"These were not individuals who came forward because I'd contacted them and requested them to come forward," she says. "These are women who came forward on their own. It was shocking for all of us that they were not going to be called. And it left me to, as they say, carry the water on the issue alone."
The Senate confirmed Thomas as a Supreme Court justice by a vote of 52-48. The isolation that Hill says she felt, however, soon began to dissipate. Women across the country, angered over post-hearing commentary that cast her as a delusional, scorned woman seeking revenge, mailed thousands of letters expressing support. T-shirts proclaiming, "I Believe Anita Hill" and "He Lied" appeared, including, famously, on the sitcom Designing Women. Hill had no idea that she would strike such a chord.
"I spoke because I thought as a citizen, and as a member of the bar, that I had an obligation to speak," she says. "I did not intend for it to become a referendum with regard to the issue of sexual harassment. But I think it was a topic that had been held in secret and shame for women, and then we were finally able to talk about it."
While the galvanized feminist response came as a surprise to Hill, she was acutely aware of the debate she caused among some African Americans at the time for "airing our dirty laundry" in public. She rejected the notion that she should follow a code of silence for the sake of racial solidarity.
"I knew it was a concern, and it weighed on me at the time," she says. "But for me, African-American experience has always been moved forward by us being able to tell the truth about our lives. Women, as well as men, need to be able to talk about what life is like for them and how they face inequality. Only through that can we make progress and move forward together."
It is this interest in justice issues that led Hill to write her latest book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. Focused on the housing market and the subprime-lending crisis that devastated African-American homeownership, she argues in the book that true equality requires not only laws and rights but also a rethinking of how it is expressed in areas as familiar as home.
Hill proposes revitalizing neighborhoods with an eye for not just safety and beautification but also the fulfillment of needs like quality transportation and financial services over payday lenders. She also suggests that President Obama has an opportunity to be a champion for the displaced, but his housing policies — focused on loan modification and mortgage refinancing — fall short.
"I'm absolutely in favor of helping people stay in their homes, but I'm asking us to think beyond that," she says. "Remember, there was a stable housing market before the crisis occurred, and still people were vulnerable to shady lending practices and, even worse, predatory lending practices. So getting people back in their homes and stabilizing the housing market is not enough."
Despite Hill's scholarship over the years on a range of subjects, from the housing market to commercial law to education policy, she understands and accepts that her name will be forever linked to sexual harassment and the Clarence Thomas hearings.
"It is one event in my life," she says. "It is not who I am in my entirety, but it's important. It still resonates with people, and I honor that. I don't try to compartmentalize things in my life by saying, 'That's over there, and this is who I am now.' All of these things make up who I am and how I live today."
A common aspect of Hill's life today is being approached by people and told how she has inspired them. "I hear from so many people, women and men, who talk about different moments in their lives when they've felt powerless to do what they know is right. They tell me that, because of that testimony, they felt empowered to come forward."
Hill's testimony is also credited with galvanizing the "Year of the Woman," the 1992 election year following the Thomas hearings, in which a record four women were elected to the U.S. Senate, including Carol Moseley Braun, the body's first African-American woman. That same year saw a 68 percent increase — from 28 to 47 — in the number of women in the House of Representatives. In the five years following the hearings, the EEOC reported that sexual harassment claims more than doubled, and awards to sexual harassment victims nearly quadrupled.
Although she's often told that things have changed in the workplace with regard to sexual harassment, Hill says they haven't changed enough. "There is still any number of abuses that people experience in the workplace," she says. "Things have changed, but we have a lot of work to do."
Another conversation frequently brought up is what she calls "the legacy question."
"People don't get to decide what their legacy is; other people decide that for them," she says with a laugh. "That's fine. But if mine is that I have helped people resist feeling as though they are voiceless, then I will be very happy. I'm all for it."
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.