Hill, Anita Faye

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Hill, Anita Faye

A little-known law professor testifying before a U.S. Senate committee in 1991 became a cause célèbre when she accused a respected U.S. Supreme Court nominee of Sexual Harassment. Anita Faye Hill became a household name during the televised confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas, the second African American in U.S. history to be tapped for the High Court. Hill, who is also African American, was calm and articulate as she withstood an intense grilling by the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee. Despite skepticism and open hostility from some of the senators, Hill stood firm on her account of sexually explicit remarks and behavior by Thomas, her former boss. Conservatives reviled Hill, feminists revered her—and by the end of the hearings, U.S. citizens of all political persuasions had a keener awareness of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Nothing in Hill's background prepared her for the unremitting media attention she received during and after the Thomas confirmation hearings. The youngest of Albert Hill and Erma Hill's 13 children, she was an extremely private person. Hill was born July 30, 1956, and raised on a struggling family farm near Morris, Oklahoma. Her religious parents emphasized the importance of hard work, strong moral values, and education. Intelligent and disciplined, Hill was valedictorian of her high school class and an honor student at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, where she graduated in 1977 with a degree in psychology. After college, Hill attended Yale University Law School on a scholarship from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Hill graduated from law school with honors in 1980, and worked briefly for the Washington, D.C., law firm of Wald, Harkrader, & Ross. In 1981, she left private practice to become special counsel to the assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The assistant secretary was Thomas. It was during this time that Thomas asked her out and, according to Hill, sexually harassed her. In 1982, Thomas was appointed chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and Hill moved to the EEOC with her boss in what she felt was a necessary career step.

"We need to turn the question around to look at the harasser, not the target. We need to be sure that we can go out and look at anyone who is a victim of harassment … and say, 'you do not have to remain silent anymore.'"
—Anita Hill

In 1983, Hill decided to leave Washington, D.C., to became a law professor at Oral Roberts University. In 1986, she accepted a teaching position at the University of Oklahoma. Although full professorship and tenure are normally granted at Oklahoma after six years, Hill achieved both in just four years.Hill's transformation from legal scholar to feminist icon came about after Thomas was offered the career opportunity of a lifetime. President george h. w. bush nominated Thomas, then a federal appeals court judge, to fill an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court. During the mandatory Senate investigation of Thomas, Hill disclosed in private sessions the alleged incidents of sexual harassment by Thomas. Reports of Hill's private testimony were leaked to a National Public Radio reporter. When Hill's allegations became public, they stood as a potential roadblock to Thomas's confirmation.

During a live broadcast of the Senate hearings, Hill's personal motives, character, and politics were scrutinized relentlessly. Both Hill and Thomas brought in witnesses to support their separate versions of events. Thomas angrily denied Hill's charges and accused the senators of conducting a media circus and a "high tech lynching." Hill stood by her story, despite the accusations of some senators who suggested that she was delusional. Her testimony was detailed and graphic. In a clear, dispassionate manner, she described Thomas's alleged interest in pornographic films and bragging comments about his sexual performance. She steadfastly denied that she was lying or prone to fantasies.

Despite Hill's damaging testimony, Thomas weathered the hearings and received Senate confirmation by a narrow margin on October 15, 1991. Hill returned to the University of Oklahoma Law School and tried to resume her quiet private life.

Immediately after the Hill-Thomas hearings, only 24 percent of the registered voters who responded to a Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll indicated that they believed Hill; 40 percent thought Thomas was telling the truth. Just one year after Thomas's confirmation, public opinion had changed. In a 1992 Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll, 44 percent of the people interviewed sided with Hill and 34 percent believed Thomas. One possible explanation for this shift in loyalties was the nation's year-long posthearing examination of the nature and effects of sexual harassment. Perhaps as more people became aware of the problem and more women revealed their own encounters with sexual harassment, Hill's credibility increased.

To some, the Hill-Thomas hearings illustrated the almost insurmountable difficulty in bringing a sexual harassment claim; to others, they showed how vulnerable men are to false accusations by women with ulterior motives. Although some women were discouraged after witnessing Hill's treatment by the Senate panel, others found the courage to file their own sexual harassment complaints after watching Hill's example.

Hill left the University of Oklahoma in 1996. She served as a visiting professor at the University of California's Institute for the Study of Social Change before accepting a position as a professor at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management. She has published extensively in the areas of international Commercial Law, Bankruptcy, and civil rights, and has engaged in a number of speaking engagements and other presentations. Hill also has offered commentary in such publications as Newsweek, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe. In 1997, she authored Speaking Truth to Power, in which she recounts her experiences as a witness in the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas.

Further readings

Hill, Anita. 1997. Speaking Truth to Power. New York: Doubleday.

Smitherman, Geneva, ed. 1995. African American Women Speak Out on Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press.