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Stanford Report, April 3, 2002

Ten years later, Anita Hill revisits the Clarence Thomas controversy

BY BARBARA PALMER

For Anita Hill, the standing ovation began before she said a single word.

Hill, the former law professor whose testimony during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas riveted the country and brought sexual harassment law into a glaring national spotlight, walked into Memorial Auditorium on March 22 to the sounds of jazz singer Dianne Reeves' recording "Endangered Species" and a cheering, largely female crowd, many wearing the red-and-white "I Believe Anita" stickers that were distributed to the audience.


Anita Hill spoke with LaDoris Cordell, vice provost for campus relations, for nearly two hours on March 22 at Memorial Auditorium. Photo: Steve Castillo

Hill was escorted by LaDoris Cordell, vice provost for campus relations, and the two sat in leather armchairs on the stage for nearly two hours, as Cordell questioned Hill about topics ranging from race and gender in politics, Paula Jones, sexual harassment law, Clarence Thomas, journalist David Brock and Hill's life after the 1991 hearings. Hill's appearance began a two-day conference, "Sexual Harassment: The Decade After," sponsored by the Sexual Harassment Policy Office.

Hill's relaxed, often humorous responses were a vivid contrast to her somber 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in which she alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Hills' televised testimony, given before a panel of 15 white male senators, became a highly politicized lightning rod for the nation's emotions and attitudes about sexism and racism. Thomas, who was later confirmed in a 52-48 vote as associate justice of the Supreme Court, called the hearings "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." Thomas' remark was ironic, given that he had previously chided African Americans for using race as a "crutch," Hill said. "I think he did it because he knew how effective it would be.

"If you think about the way the hearings were structured, the hearings were really about Thomas' race and my gender," she said. In reality, her race and Thomas' gender were more relevant, she said.

During the hearings, "it was as if I had no race or that my race wasn't significant in the assessments that people made about the truthfulness of my statements," Hill said. But "how do you think certain people would have reacted if I had come forward and been white, blond-haired and blue-eyed?" she continued. "And I will just give you one name: Strom Thurmond."

Thurmond, a conservative Republican, voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964, partly due to concerns about "mixing of races," Hill said. "I do not think Strom Thurmond would have embraced Clarence Thomas so readily if his accuser had been a white female."

Conversely, Thomas was operating in an arena where gender meant everything, she said. "The whole structure of power in the city of Washington seems to center around powerful men making these decisions and using sex as one of the perks of becoming powerful."

Thomas "became this sort of race person and we ignored his gender, and I became this gender person and they ignored my race," she said. "The real problem is that the way that power is given out in our society pits us against each other." Race, gender and class are all used to keep power away from people, she said. "What we really need to be understanding is that all of these things matter and they all stem from the fact that certain people live with power and authority and they want to maintain it."

Hill also addressed her own motives for speaking out about the alleged harassment, which have been variously attributed to promptings from the African American community and white liberals, Hill said.

"What people can't really understand is that women can come forward on their own," she said. "What I wanted was for everyone listening to understand that these things mattered -- not necessarily for me, but in this particular forum they mattered in terms of whether of not we were getting a person who should sit on the Supreme Court."

After her weekend of testimony, Hill immediately went back to teaching at the University of Oklahoma, where she was a professor of law. The public perception is that her life went back to normal, she said.

Instead, she became the subject of intense scrutiny when Congress passed a resolution to investigate the leak of an FBI interview with Hill about Thomas. Her phone records were subpoenaed and family members were questioned in a months-long investigation, she said.

The stress of the hearings exacerbated some existing health problems, just as politicians in her native state of Oklahoma called for her resignation, she said. She also strongly felt the pain of rejection by critics in the African American community. There were "very, very outspoken" critics in the black community who didn't support Thomas politically but couldn't bear to see an African American's behavior publicly exposed, she said. "I became the messenger who had to be killed."

An endowed professorship in her name at the University of Oklahoma, funded by individual contributors, became controversial, she said. "We couldn't even give the money in my name. And very few universities don't accept money." One of her biggest detractors declared that if she wasn't fired, the University of Oklahoma law school should be abolished, she said.

Her spiritual beliefs and the support of family and friends kept her sane, said Hill, who grew up on a farm in rural Oklahoma as the youngest of 13 children.

"When you're in a situation ... you really do question your view of reality," Hill said. "What ultimately kept me sane was that so much of what was going on was insane. What I had done was the honest, the right and the correct thing to do."

Cordell tossed out a number of high-profile names, including that of Paula Jones, asking for Hill's response. Jones really didn't have a good sexual harassment case against Bill Clinton and erred in drawing political lines before she drew substantive ones, Hill said, adding that Clinton's behavior, if Jones' account is true, was egregious. "The law catches a lot of behavior, but it doesn't catch everything," she said.

Hill also talked about journalist David Brock's recent revelation that his 1994 bestseller, The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story, was filled with lies. Brock didn't define her when he was her detractor and wouldn't define her now, she said. However, "it is troubling that he was given so much credibility," she said, noting wryly that the book Brock now is disclaiming got better reviews than her own memoir, Speaking Truth to Power, which was published in 1997.

About Clarence Thomas, Hill spoke in terms of the present and the future. Thomas' close following of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia's opinions could jeopardize advances made in civil rights and women's rights, she said. "It doesn't surprise me, but it does worry me."

There have been significant strides in the interpretation of sexual harassment laws by the Supreme Court in the last decade, she said. The court now recognizes sexual harassment as a cause of action in both educational and employment settings and allows wide latitude in proving cases, she said. The court also has resisted drawing distinct parameters in defining sexual harassment and instead has allowed decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis. "There is a real understanding that this is a cultural problem and that we have to figure out, in a particular context, what in fact is going to be a violation of the law." Whether that trend will continue remains to be seen, she said.

Hill said she has realized that "laws are important, but not until people embrace the laws and live the law that change can occur." Hill left the University of Oklahoma and now teaches social policy, law and women's studies in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

Cordell asked Hill if she had any advice for how a junior faculty member at a prestigious university might file a sexual harassment charge and not jeopardize his or her career.

"I don't know that you can do something and not jeopardize your career -- even today," Hill said. "I tell people to understand what their support is. Can you count on somebody within your institution to support you and support your right to go forward?"

Hill advised that individuals should understand the policies and procedures and think about the potential results of an unwanted outcome, she said.

Although much has changed in the last 10 years, much remains the same, Hill said. "I would love to be able to say to people it's a new day and you can come forward and you can expect a situation to be righted, but that's not true," she said. "I can also say to people that the situation is not going to be corrected on its own. You must make choices about what you're willing to risk."

Hill's appearance was sponsored by the Sexual Harassment Policy Office, the Office of Campus Relations, Stanford Law School, the Office of General Counsel, the Associated Students, the Black Student Union, the Women's Community Center, Stanford Black Law Students and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.