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Anita Hill talks feminism, sexual harassment and Clarence Thomas

Now 23 years after the Thomas hearings, "We have to ask ourselves, are the same kinds of behaviors and attitudes still prevalent in institutions today?"
Anita Hill
Anita Hill, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, on Jan. 19, 2013, in Park City, Utah.

In 1991, when the young law professor, Anita Hill, testified that her former boss and then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, the right wing threw "virtually every derogatory and often contradictory allegation" in her direction. That's according to David Brock, the man who later regretted his crusade to publicly portray Hill as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty."

It wasn't just the press: the Senate Judiciary Committee treated her as if she were on trial, and one senator referred to her a "scorned woman." Thomas, who denied all of his charges, later wrote in his memoir that Hill “might have been motivated not by personal outrage but by ideological conviction.” But as the new documentary film Anita underlines, there was no evidence that Anita Hill -- reserved, composed, and scrupulous -- was anything they said she was. As for ideological, she has kept above the political fray, and in an interview with msnbc, remained studiously non-partisan. 

The film starts out with Ginni Thomas, wife of Clarence, leaving you a voicemail demanding you apologize to her. Who would you like to apologize to you? 

I’m not focusing on anybody apologizing. I think the hearings were a disservice to everyone. Rather than expect an apology, which in political terms is a pretty easy act to do, I would like for us to improve our processes, and ensure that we do not allow this to happen every again.

Your testimony changed the national conversation about sexual harassment. What do you think are the barriers that exist now? 

I think people are well aware that they have a right to come forward. But many people have a fear that the processes will not give them a fair hearing. Even for those who complain, I think we’ve fallen down in terms of the investigative process. We still have a lot of challenges in terms of making sure that the people who are found guilty of harassment suffer the consequences of their behavior.

We also need to think about this in terms of a broader pattern of behavior. I hear from a lot of people who are sexual assault survivors … If you look at sexual harassment in the military, for example, we see spectrums of behavior that go all the way to assault.

You worked with Clarence Thomas in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Reagan Administration. Were you a Republican? Did your subsequent experiences change that? 

My purpose in working at the EEOC was to work against employment discrimination. One could be perfectly clear about this: The sexual harassment laws weren’t taken very seriously even before the Reagan election. I don’t think we can simply say that this is a matter of a Republican administration that failed to protect women in the workplace. There were judges throughout the country that didn’t see this as a real legal issue.

Did you always consider yourself a feminist? Did that change over time?

I don’t think it was ever an issue one way or another for me. I’d always believed in equal rights for women, and for people. For me, the question is equality. 

After your treatment at the Senate Judiciary Committee, though, Democratic women rallied to your side. Were you aware of it at the time? Did it change anything for you?

Of course I was aware that they were there. If you opened up The New York Times you saw the women in the House, marching to the Senate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Patricia Schroeder.

What was outrageous was that we needed to take this [allegation of harassment] seriously. That this was relevant to the confirmation process. Twenty-two years later, we think, how in the world could they deny that? But that’s exactly what they attempted to do. They didn’t take sexual harassment seriously. We were in the primarily male club in the U.S. Senate. But we still have to ask ourselves, are the same kinds of behaviors and attitudes still prevalent in institutions today? I think we can see vestiges of the same attitudes.

Is it at all better now because there are 20 women in the Senate?

I think today, the issue would be vetted before we got to the hearing stage. Now we know that it’s relevant to a confirmation process for a lifetime appointment. And if we do get to that point I don’t think there would be senators like Alan Simpson who are willing to call a complaint of sexual harassment “crap.” I don’t believe that any person who considers themselves a leader would be willing and able to take some of those positions. I think the public outcry from women and men would be so strong as to stop that kind of behavior.

Since then, which Supreme Court decision have you most disagreed with? 

There are a lot of people who analyze the Supreme Court. I don’t do that kind of work. There have been some very important messages from, for example, Justice Ginsburg. It’s not just one decision, it’s the message that came out of her dissent in the Lily Ledbetter case, to have an understanding of the work lives of people who are bringing discrimination. Ms. Ledbetter had been discriminated against, it was part of the record, it was a conclusion based on the facts, and yet she lost her case. 

In a similar vein, Justice O’Connor, in one of her very first Supreme Court decisions, made a similar statement about the reality of women’s experiences. I think that’s what the law really needs to do. We’ve got to match our legal reasoning with what’s happening in the real world.

Here’s a question from one of our readers. “Anita Hill, I just wanted to say how much I admired your courage and dignity during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Have you ever regretted testifying because of the impact on your own life?”

I really regret the behavior that some people engaged in, and I regret that I had friends who were hurt. I heard from a friend recently who lost his job because he stood up for me. I don’t regret what I did because it was the right thing to do, the consequences to my career notwithstanding.

You teach, and you’ve talked about wanting to do this film so young women can know what you went through. What’s your opinion of how young women are doing, in terms of feminist activism? 

The reason so much attention is being paid right now to campus sexual assault is because of young women coming forward. The Occidental case is really a turning point. And it’s because a young woman came forward. I think young women are doing what we tell them they should be doing. The question I have is, are our institutions fulfilling their obligations in providing a safe environment in coming forward? And are they making sure that other people who are bystanders are not ignoring it or contributing to it?