Surviving Clarence

Article excerpt

Byline: Leslie Bennetts

Twenty years after the Clarence Thomas hearings--and a year after Thomas's wife left her a message--Anita Hill isn't giving an inch.

On a balmy Indian-summer afternoon in Waltham, Mass., a slender, attractive 55-year-old professor welcomes a visitor to her modest office at Brandeis University to talk about the historic scandal that transformed the national debate over sexual harassment two decades ago.

Calm and as cheerful as her bright tomato-red cardigan, Anita Hill smiles wryly when asked if she suffered from posttraumatic stress after testifying at Justice Clarence Thomas's 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, where she was pilloried for revealing the way she said he behaved as her boss in two different jobs.

"It was traumatic," acknowledges Hill, who teaches public policy, law, and women's studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. "It hurt, and it hurt people I cared about. But I was determined not to be defeated by people who tried to make me out to be something I wasn't."

As the 20th anniversary of the hearings approaches, Hill is preparing to deliver the keynote address at a conference commemorating her contribution to the issue of sexual harassment, "Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth," which will be held at New York's Hunter College on Oct. 15. Such public visibility is uncharacteristic for Hill, who remained silent about Justice Thomas's conduct for years before being summoned to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee after investigators heard reports that the Supreme Court nominee had sexually harassed female employees on the job. After the hearings, Hill virtually disappeared into private life and has since kept such a low profile that many women feared she was shattered by the poisonous retaliation she endured. "I always thought she was broken by it," says one Ivy League professor and women's-history expert who has never met Hill.

But Hill refused to succumb. "I really want to have a good life; I want to have a life that's worthwhile and meaningful. Being consumed by anger is inconsistent with the goals I have for my life," says Hill, who grew up in poverty on an Oklahoma farm as the youngest of 13 children. "But of course I'm angry. I'm angry with him, I'm angry with the senators--I'm probably less angry than I was 10 years ago, but it's still there. I think we let go of anger bit by bit. To me, the best way to do that is to think about what my contribution can be, to make sure this doesn't happen to other people. The larger goal is both gender equality and racial equality, because both racism and sexism contributed to my being victimized. But I don't want to walk around being angry all the time. It's not constructive."

The fiercely partisan battle over Thomas's confirmation began with criticism that he was not well qualified to serve on the Supreme Court and exploded into a cause celebre with Hill's appearance. A law professor who had previously worked for Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Hill testified that her former boss habitually talked about pornography in the office; described X-rated material that ranged from bestiality to a character called Long Dong Silver; badgered her about why she wouldn't go out with him; bragged about his physical endowment and sexual prowess; and taunted her with lewd remarks, such as accusing her of putting pubic hair on his can of Coca-Cola.

In response, the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated Hill with a ferocity that shocked even political veterans, impugning everything from her competence to her sanity to her sexuality. Like a horrifyingly mismatched gladiatorial contest pitting a powerful gang of well-armed men against a woman with no defense save her own account of what someone had done to her against her will, the televised hearings mesmerized the nation. Many female observers were aghast at the way Hill was bullied and demeaned by the committee, whose members seemed both hostile and clueless about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace. …