Anita Hill on Tuesday recalled the experience that catapulted her into the national arena nearly 25 years ago — when she testified before senators considering the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court — and said the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing represented the “worst practice of a sexual harassment case.”
Hill, speaking at Nassau Community College as part of its Sexual Harassment Awareness Days, repeated her consistent accusations against Thomas, which he vehemently denied during the confirmation proceedings in 1991.
“My experience with Clarence Thomas was that of being constantly approached about dating; it was an experience of him talking about pornography in the workplace; talking about his own sexual adventures,” she said during a nearly hour-long speech in the first of two presentations at the Garden City college.
She noted that her “workplace experience” with Thomas was at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she had been his subordinate. The latter post was particularly significant, she said, because the EEOC was charged with enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of race and gender, among other things.
Hill, 59, now senior adviser to the provost at Brandeis University and a professor of law, public policy and women’s studies at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, charged that the Judiciary Committee did not properly investigate by not using people who were experts in sexual harassment issues, did not consider proper evidence, and did not call in experts in sexual harassment cases to testify. She also quoted remarks from committee members that she said indicated they didn’t take sexual harassment issues seriously.
Thomas, 68, was confirmed by a Senate vote of 52–48. During his years on the high court he has been ideologically aligned with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the strict originalist in terms of constitutional interpretation, who died Feb. 13. Thomas also was known for a decade-long silence on the bench during oral arguments — a silence he broke only on Feb. 29.
Hill was the only person to testify before the Judiciary Committee about alleged unwanted sexual allegations from Thomas. Another woman who was a subordinate of Thomas’ at the EEOC before he fired her did not testify, though she gave the committee a written statement that Thomas had pressured her for a date and that he had made comments to her about women’s anatomy.
Thomas, in denying Hill’s accusations before the committee, said, “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.”
Hill’s testimony raised awareness nationwide on the issue of sexual harassment. In part because of it, Congress passed a law that allows sexual harassment victims to seek damage awards, back pay and reinstatement.
During her second speech in the afternoon, Hill said it was people who were moved through watching her testimony — some of whom had experiences similar to hers — that led to change.
“It was people like you who talked about it, and society said, ‘We must do something about this.’ ”
During the afternoon session, Hill described how life was difficult after her testimony. Then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, she said state legislators tried to get her fired and, failing that, some openly considered closing the law school to oust her. She said a national poll found that 70 percent of people polled did not believe her testimony.
“I had put myself at risk, shared my story with the world . . . and nothing changed,” she said. “I left, thinking myself a victim again.” She credited strong support from family and friends, along with her religious faith and belief in herself, for helping her endure.
“It’s not easy. I will say to you, I came forward. I spoke truthfully . . . and I would do it all over again,” Hill said to applause.
Her critique Tuesday was measured and sometimes humorous, but also razor-sharp in her assessment of what she called the “worst practices” the committee used to investigate whether Thomas had engaged in sexual harassment in his previous positions, as she testified at the time.
The proper standard of proof was not used, she said, noting that people would say Thomas was innocent until proven guilty — the standard in criminal cases, not civil violations. She said, joking wryly, that no one was going to put Thomas in jail.
The key issues for the Judiciary Committee, Hill said, should have been whether Thomas was fit to serve on the court when matters such as sexual harassment might come before it, and that no one should be above the law.
In the end, she said, the committee acted politically: “They decided to make a decision on political grounds.” She added later, “What if they had put leadership above politics?”
The Thomas confirmation hearings and her testimony have lessons relevant to the present, she said, ticking off the need for a proper investigation as well as a change in mindset.
She urged her listeners to “reimagine” a vision of the society where sexual harassment and assault are not viewed as givens that must be lived with, but violent acts to be eliminated.
Today, she said, some college administrators still hesitate to handle charges of sexual harassment. She said they might say it’s one mistake on the part of an alleged perpetrator, or fear backlash if the accused is a popular athlete or a member of a prominent family.
Her response, she said, is “How many mistakes do you get?”
“Is he a good kid?” she asked rhetorically. “Is that what we’re going to say?”
She called on society to note the impact of racial disparities as well, saying they emerge in education, housing, health care and criminal justice.
Race was in that Senate hearing room when she testified, Hill said.
“They had the audacity to say my race didn’t matter,” she said, and as an African-American woman she believed her voice was disrespected.
“We experience life through both these lenses,” she said of race and gender. “The credibility given to me was measured both by my race and my gender.”
Diana Milillo-Portugal, the chair of NCC’s Sexual Harassment Awareness Days, called Hill’s testimony an “important piece of history.”
“The reality is that sexual harassment in the workplace and in schools is still as prevalent today as it was 25 years ago,” Milillo-Portugal said.