Anita Hill on sexual harassment and survival: ‘You have to think: what is my life for?’

Before Christine Blasey Ford and Monica Lewinsky, there was Anita Hill, shamed for exposing the actions of a powerful man. She explains how she withstood the tumult

Anita Hill sits so still that, when she is not speaking, I worry that the screen through which we are talking may have frozen. Yet despite her lawyerly, academic poise, she exudes warmth: you would feel safe confiding in her. And that is what people have been doing for the past 30 years – telling her of their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. “I was a symbol of so many people’s experiences,” she says.

In the pantheon of women shamed for exposing the actions of high-profile men – before Christine Blasey Ford in 2018 and Monica Lewinsky in 1998 – there was Anita Hill. In 1991, the US president, George HW Bush, nominated Clarence Thomas to the supreme court. Senate hearings for his confirmation were completed without incident, until an interview of Hill by the FBI was leaked to the press. In it, Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment while he was her supervisor in two separate jobs, at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Among other claims, Hill said that Thomas discussed women having sex with animals, and pornographic films depicting group sex or rape scenes, and described his own sexual prowess and anatomy. According to Hill, Thomas’s behaviour forced her to resign from her job.

The Senate hearings reopened, and Hill repeated her claims in a series of televised sessions. Not only was she not believed, her character and motivation were impugned by members of the all-white, all-male Senate committee. The senator Orrin Hatch called her allegations “contrived” and her motivations suspect as she was working with “slick lawyers” and interest groups bent on destroying Thomas’s chances to join the court.

Thomas was confirmed by a slim margin of 52-48. Since then people have been contacting Hill to tell her what they went through – and she has chosen to embrace the role.

“I went back to a lot of turmoil – threats to my job and threats to my life,” says Hill, 65, who since 1999 has been a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.But what I also got was people reaching out to me. I mean literally thousands of people, and this was before email. I don’t know what it would have been had there been email or social media. It occurred to me that I had a duty.” She heard from female victims of sexual harassment, incest survivors, domestic violence victims and, increasingly over the years, men.

In her new book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence, Hill expands on all the reasons why gender inequality and sexual violence exist, why there are still so many of these stories. She concludes that our legal infrastructures and social hierarchies do not prioritise these issues, making it easier to assume people are lying or exaggerating about sexual harassment and assault than to believe they are telling the truth.

Anita Hill testifying in 1991.
Anita Hill testifying in 1991. Photograph: Peter Heimsath/Rex/Shutterstock

She understood this even before the Thomas hearings, which was presumably why she seemed so composed under aggressive questioning. “It was absolutely not a surprise,” she says. “It was not the first time that I had confronted people who were dismissive, who were totally in denial about my experience or really willing to redefine my experience to suit their own purposes.”

Hill grew up in Oklahoma, the youngest of 13 children in a poor farming family. She attributes much of her serenity to a loving upbringing, and her parents in particular. “It was a very happy childhood. We didn’t have any money, but not many of the people around us had much money, so we didn’t feel like we were outliers in that respect. I feel quite fortunate to have had so many people around me who were kin, who you really felt like had your best interest always in mind.”

She stayed close to home when she went to college at Oklahoma State University. Academically, she was a star from an early age, graduating at the top of her school class before studying psychology at OSU, followed by law at Yale. But she also encountered scepticism about her abilities early on. When she told a college admissions adviser she wanted to study science, she was told she should “do something easier”, because it was unfathomable that a black woman could be a scientist. Only three of the 13 Hill children, including Anita, graduated from integrated schools.

She describes herself in Believing as an unlikely movement leader, being “neither charismatic nor a gifted speaker”. But she was determined that the Thomas affair would not define her. “In 1991, everybody assumed that after the vote was cast everything was going to be over for me,” she tells me. She had no idea that she would hear from so many people. “It was a weight. But again, you have to think, what is my life for? Was it to go to Washington, experience what people believe was a defeat, and then just go back and let all of that be out there as a defeat? Or was I in a unique position to shed some light on the situation – to say this was not about me personally, this is about a culture that doesn’t accept that women can tell the truth about abuse.”

Even after 30 years of revisiting her experiences in one form or another, Hill struggles to talk about intimate personal details. She is private in the extreme, something she attributes to her mother and the shibboleth that black people “don’t air their dirty laundry” because it will be somehow used against them. But relinquishing the law was an even bigger strain than relinquishing her privacy. She says that, in 1982, once it became clear to her that Thomas was not going to stop harassing her – and that no one would believe her if she revealed what was going on – she quit as his assistant, moved back to Oklahoma and started life as an academic, ending her legal career. The sense of being deprived of what she had earned as a hardworking, gifted woman is the only grievance that she seems to still nurse. “I grew up in the civil rights era, so I grew up thinking that of course I had the right to be whatever I wanted to be. But when it really came down to this particular experience, that was not open to me.”

When Ford brought sexual harassment allegations against the supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, Hill really expected it to go differently than it had for her. She thought: “This time could be better. I wanted it to be better. Because I had witnessed what had happened since 1991. I had seen the growth in society in terms of awareness since 1991. This was a year after #MeToo where you had 19m tweets about what was going on in people’s lives. I drew on that, I drew on the fact that over the years I had seen women and men and people who identify as neither, step up and respond to that type of behaviour.”

But, she adds: “Maybe it was just hopefulness that perhaps the Senate judiciary committee had caught up with the rest of the world. They acted out of wilful ignorance.”

Despite everything, she believes change can happen. It’s happened to some extent with Joe Biden, who was the Senate judiciary chair in 1991 when Hill made her claims, and failed to call additional witnesses whose statements corroborated her account. He also failed to intervene when Republican colleagues savaged her. When he entered the presidential race in 2020, he conceded: “As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well.” In 2017, when Biden began hinting that perhaps he owed Hill an apology, Hill and her long-term partner, Chuck, came up with a joke. Every time the doorbell rang in their home, they would race each other to ask; “Could that be Joe Biden coming to apologise in person?”

When an apology of sorts did finally come in a phone call in 2019, she urged Biden to think of his responsibility to the country, rather than to her. She wasn’t that invested in his soul-searching because: “We don’t need to rely on an apology. We don’t need to rely on their redemption. We can look forward on our own … You cannot be defined by what others are calling your defeat. You have to define what you see as victory. And you have to live it.”

One victory she has chosen to count is the public’s response. “In 1991, people did step up. In 2018, after the Kavanaugh hearings, people stepped up. It was part of the public discussion, it was part of what shaped the election. We have seen people going into the fray instead of running away from it. We should be encouraged by that.” But she wears both her hope and fatigue together. She quotes civil rights activist Pauli Murray’s poem Dark Testament: “Hope is a song in a weary throat.” The moment she utters those words, her scholarly manner dissolves. She beams when she repeats the quote. She encourages me to read the whole poem and then, bashfully overcome with love for it, says: “Actually, I have it,” and pulls it up on her screen. She reads, smiling, from the end of the poem.

Give me a song of kindliness and a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love, and a brown girl’s heart to hear it.

She pauses, then says: “Hope doesn’t necessarily come from the tangible things, it doesn’t have to come because something monumental happened. It can come from something small that gives people hope. I wrote this book because I wanted to answer a lot of people’s questions, but also because I wanted to give people hope. I didn’t want to gloss over the hardship, but we have much more tools and a better understanding of these issues today.”

Hill with (from left) Tarana Burke and Nancy Pelosi at the VH1 Trailblazer Honors ceremony in 2019.
Hill with (from left) Tarana Burke and Nancy Pelosi at the VH1 Trailblazer Honors ceremony in 2019. Photograph: Jordan Strauss/January Images/Shutterstock

I ask her if she ever feels frustrated that people fixate on whether she has a vendetta, an axe to grind with Thomas and Biden, especially considering they have only grown more powerful since 1991. Several of the protagonists from that time are still in office, and she occasionally bumps into them. She writes in her book of running into the senator Arlen Specter in an airport in 1997. In 1991, Specter accused Hill of “flat-out perjury”. At the airport years later, he chatted politely and suggested that they could even work on a gender-equity project together. At that moment, Hill “realised that to him the hearing was just about politics. For me, it was about my life.”

It was a helpful lesson. “The whole idea of collapsing this into a ‘he said, she said’ – something between the two people, whether it’s between me and Clarence Thomas, or Kavanaugh and Ford – really is a way to reduce the problem, and to not see that it is a massive problem that family members, friends, neighbours and co-workers are experiencing. In this country, one out of three households is impacted by some form of gender-based violence. This is a problem. And it’s bigger than me.”

Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence by Anita Hill is published by Bantam, priced £25. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Nesrine Malik

The GuardianTramp

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