Anita Hill Speaks Up

A Sexual Harassment Case Changes National Precedents and Inspires Third Wave Feminism

It may be hard to believe, but only twenty-three years ago there was no federal law against sexual harassment. Victims had little to no protection under the law, and there seemed to be little reason or reward for coming forward. Despite these hostile circumstances, one woman decided to speak up and tell her story, ultimately losing a battle, but inspiring changed national precedents and Third-Wave Feminism along the way. Her name was Anita Hill.

As far as backgrounds, Hill had a lot in common with her harasser and former boss, Clarence Thomas. Both were African-American and had grown up in poverty. Both had used education as an escape, and catalyst for well-respected careers. When it came down to who was telling the truth, both were credible witnesses, known for their spiritual values.

The incidents of harassment took place during 1981-83, but Hill did not accuse Thomas until 1991, unable to keep silent after President George Bush Sr. nominated Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Despite a lack of experience there was little opposition to the nomination. All signs pointed toward Thomas easily winning the seat – until conversations between Hill and the F.B.I. leaked to the press.

In televised hearings to the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by then-Senator Joe Biden, Hill said that Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her boss at the Department of Education and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and married to his first wife Kathy Ambush. Hill noted fear of missing out on good assignments, being fired completely, and not being able to find a job within the Reagan administration as reasons behind her years of silence, as well as her decision to follow him to a second job. Thomas vehemently denied all charges.

Quickly, the case became not about Thomas’s character, but Hill’s. The 98% male committee mocked Hill, intimidating her into relaying embarrassing and often unnecessary details. The more the room turned against her, the more graphic Hill became, trying in vain to convince a skeptical jury of the truth. She said:

“It wasn’t as though it happened every day. But I went to work during certain periods knowing that it might happen. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess. He referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal.”

In rebuttal the notoriously conservative Thomas cited politics as the root of Hill’s “lies,” calling her a “left-winger” who was afraid he would overturn Roe vs. Wade. He repeatedly pulled the race card, clinging to the defense that Hill was attacking him with “the worst stereotypes we have about black men in this country.” To the Senate Judiciary Committee he said:

“This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

By the end, according to the Senate, Hill did not “draw the conclusion” that Thomas harassed her, and he was confirmed a member of the Supreme Court 52-48. The case had been lost and Hill’s character drug against the coals, but time would reveal far-reaching repercussions.

Hill’s case was heavily covered by the media, and inspired national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace. It was only after the controversy that Bush Sr. dropped his opposition to a bill giving federal employees the right to seek damages for harassment. Immediately, reports of cases more than doubled. Furthermore, the following election season in 1992 was dubbed the Year of the Woman, as women disgusted by Hill’s unfair treatment mobilized to elect more females to office. Five women won seats in the Senate, and twenty-five in the House of Representatives. African-American feminists also rallied behind Hill, kicking off a new era of Third Wave Feminism.

Hill went on to have a career in law, authoring several books, and fighting sexual harassment to this day. Although she says the issue has been “acknowledged,” she stresses that the problem is still far from being solved. In March 2014 she said,

“They didn’t take sexual harassment seriously. We were in the primary 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, but I think in 2014 we have an opportunity to take it seriously for the young women who are on campuses, and the young women who are in the military. And for the women in workplaces that have not been addressed.”

The problem persists, but the progress that has been made is due to the bravery of Anita Hill. While Clarence Thomas and the patriarchal powers that be will remember her as a threat to their power, the majority recall an American hero.