A ‘Reluctant Witness,’ Anita Hill in Spotlight Again as New Film Opens
It’s been more than 22 years since Anita Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee in that famous bright blue suit — one she could never bring herself to wear again — to make the sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas that transfixed a nation.
And much has changed since then.
But not everything.
“I hope you rot in hell,” went an email that Hill, now 57 and a professor at Brandeis University, received just a few weeks ago from a member of the public.
After all this time?
“Yes,” Hill says, with a resigned air. “As they go, this one was fairly mild. But it happens. And it’ll happen again.”
Especially now. The soft-spoken Hill, who still speaks in the same calm, precise tone many remember from 1991, has for two decades been living a quiet academic life, occasionally venturing out to speak about sexual harassment but often declining interviews.
But she’s about to enter the maelstrom again with the release Friday of a new documentary, Anita, by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Mock. After years of declining requests to collaborate on a film about her experiences, she said yes.
Hill says she was inspired by the reactions she was getting from people as the 20th anniversary of those Supreme Court confirmation hearings approached — particularly in 2010, when news broke that she’d received a voice mail from Thomas’ wife, Virginia, asking Hill to “consider an apology.” (That voice mail opens the film.)
“People responded with outrage to that,” Hill says. “But even more, I realized that here we are 20 years later and the issues are still resonating — in the workplace, in universities, in the military. So if 1991 could help us start a conversation, how then can we move this to another level? Because clearly we haven’t eliminated the problem.”
Experts agree the problem surely hasn’t been eliminated. But many cite Hill’s testimony as a landmark event, in both social and legal terms.
“Back then, this was an invisible issue, until Anita testified,” says Marcia D. Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. Not only did Hill’s testimony raise public consciousness about sexual harassment in the workplace, she says, and spur other women to make claims, but only months later, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which addressed issues of employment discrimination, was passed with strong support.
“That happened in direct response to the growing realization of what the American public had seen in the hearings,” Greenberger contends.
It’s clear that Hill became, and remains, a heroine to many women. It’s also clear that while she doesn’t reject it, she remains somewhat uncomfortable with the status. In an interview at a Manhattan hotel, she seems almost more excited to discuss her work preparing a strategic plan for Brandeis than her public persona.
“In some ways I’m not very well suited, I think, for that position of heroine,” she says. “People do want that person who is sort of out there and vocal and adamant about who they are and what they want. But I wouldn’t be credible if I didn’t come to this with my own personality.”
Hill says that in her day-to-day life, “1991 just doesn’t figure in.” Case in point: At Brandeis, many of her students don’t even know about her past. Hill points out that her grad students were only children in 1991, and the undergrads weren’t even born.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she says. “It’s important to help them focus on what their learning objectives are, and not on me as a person.”
Reluctant heroine or not, Hill often evokes a passionate response, says filmmaker Mock, who has accompanied Hill at film-related events.
“I had no idea she was a rock star,” says Mock. “But it’s a routine: People stand up when she walks in. They shout: ‘I love you!’ and ‘I believe you, Anita!’ ”
“She was a reluctant witness, and she remains a reluctant public figure,” Mock adds. “But she is proud to be a part of this journey that she never intended to be on.”
In fact, Hill says, before all this, she’d planned to build a career in international commercial law, perhaps in Europe. “It would have been a very different life!” she laughs.
A life, likely, without hate mail. Hill says the worst part wasn’t the actual hours spent testifying about painfully explicit matters, or when Thomas was ultimately confirmed to the Supreme Court, but what happened when she returned to her teaching job at the University of Oklahoma.
“I was getting threats,” she said. “People were trying to get me fired. Friends of mine were fired.” At the same time, she was getting bundles of letters of support from across the country. But the threat of losing her job felt more immediate.
Hill left the university in 1996, and landed at Brandeis soon after. In 2007, she was back in the news when Thomas wrote a book, My Grandfather’s Son, in which he described her as rude, a mediocre worker, a liar and his “most traitorous adversary.” She wrote a New York Times op-ed piece saying she would not allow Thomas to “reinvent” her.
Hill has had no contact with Thomas, and never answered his wife. She’s also had no contact with the former senator who ran the hearings, Vice President Joe Biden.
The sight of that all-white, all-male panel, in clear contrast to Hill, is one of the more striking visuals in “Anita.”
“Can you believe it was JUST 22 years ago?” she says. “It’s like ‘Mad Men’!”
“It was such a harsh contrast between who they were, and me and how I looked, in that blue suit,” she says. “It was a reflection of their power and privilege. And I think the public saw that and related to me — though at the time, I just felt isolated.”
What if the hearings were to happen now? Much would be different, Hill believes, including the language used by the senators. “I do not believe we would have an (Sen.) Alan Simpson saying ‘that sexual harassment crap,’ for example,” she says. “The conversation has changed. We as a society have accepted that these are important issues.”
Speaking of the suit, we have to ask: What happened to it?
“You’re not going to ask me if it still fits, are you?” she asks with mock alarm.
That suit, she explains, was way too loaded with meaning to ever wear again. The Smithsonian recently asked to display it, but she wasn’t ready yet.
“One day, the time will be right,” she says.