Anita Hill is currently making the publicity rounds to talk up “Anita”, a documentary about her 1991 confrontation at a Senate confirmation hearing with Clarence Thomas over the Supreme court nominee’s “unwanted sexual advances”. He was her boss at the Education Department and Equal Opportunities Office.
She’s an amazing woman who almost singlehandedly, albeit with the help of some piggish U.S. senators, changed America. At the very least women politicians like my preferred presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, and Hillary owe their careers to Hill.
The students Hill now teaches at Brandeis University weren’t even born when the scandal exploded on nationwide TV. Previously she was on the law faculty of the University of Oklahoma but had to leave after outraged local male politicians compared her to John F. Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Hill “lost” the 1991 Senate hearing – Thomas was confirmed and took his seat as the Court’s worst justice since Judge Taney of Dredd Scott infamy. (Ironically, he replaced the court’s only other black judge, the civil rights fighter Thurgood Marshall.)
But the gripping drama of the encounter between two small-town African Americans with slave ancestors, she from Lone Tree, Oklahoma, he from Pin Point, Georgia, fixated TV viewers. Ultimately, Anita Hill “won” because her testimony, under hostile bombardment by the Judiciary Committee, was a game changer in terms of awareness of workplace sexual harassment.
Public opinion, at first skeptical of Hill’s lurid tale, gradually shifted to her. Soon after the hearings, President George H.W. Bush was forced to drop his opposition to a bill giving harassment victims the right to seek federal damage awards, back pay and reinstatement. Fearing law suits, private companies started training programs. A whole culture changed – not enough, as we know from how long it took Los Angeles detectives to arrest the woman-slaughtering Grim Sleeper, the army court martial’s abuse of Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair’s female accuser, and the long list of colleges, from Harvard to Occidental, who keep dragging their feet on sex assault cases.
But before we get too high minded let’s revisit what Clarence Thomas self-pityingly called a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” by white liberals. Indeed someone did get hung out to dry, but it was Anita Hill who had to face a posse of clueless, hostile men led by Joe Biden and Alan Simpson who sneered at “that sexual harassment crap”. The committee’s liberal Ted Kennedy kept his mouth shut because he was too busy trying to keep his nephew out of jail on a rape charge.
Even so it was riveting TV full of enjoyably dirty stuff like Hill accusing Thomas of showing her a Coke can demanding, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” There was even mention of – who? – Long Dong Silver, a porn star with a reputed 18-inch penis whose movies Hill said Thomas said he liked watching.
Wow. This was real politics in real time.
Chairman Biden sold us all out. He refused to call four female witnesses waiting in hotel rooms to support Hill’s version. Hill took a polygraph test, Thomas declined; Hill’s test supported her version. Judiciary Committee members behaved as if auditioning for a radical feminist film exposing men as misogynistic beasts. In essence the senators told Anita Hill she was a lying harpie who should shut up and go home. Her most enduring contribution to our culture was that, even more than Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, she forced a woman’s voice to be heard.
In the end the full Senate confirmed Thomas by the narrowest margin. They knew he was a mediocrity but either wanted a rightwinger on the Court or were too scared of being called racist to blast this angry, bile-filled black man out of his chair. Spinelesness seems built into the liberal Democrat DNA. (Look up the voting records of those who voted to confirm as chief Justice John Roberts the corporate bagman.)
The moral weight of Anita Hill’s testimony forced me to take it personally. What was she saying about me when she talked about Clarence Thomas’s thuggishness? We know that millions of women were moved to anger and political action by the hearings. And that panicked CEOs suddenly reached for their phones to call human resources before the writs flew over the transom. But what about us poor schmucks down in the trenches of what used to be called the sex war and is now I guess called human interaction relationships?
Deep in my Chicago Id I never left the streetcorner where our adolescent idea of fun was to scream obscenities at passing girls because we thought it was cute and charming. (You didn’t hit girls because on Chicago’s west side they slugged you back or asked their big brothers to.) Showing respect to females other than grandmothers, and not always them, simply wasn’t part of the street culture although, to be fair, I had boy friends on the same block who would not have dreamed of what today we call sexual harassment and was back then, in the Dark Ages, merely seen as horseplay.
One of the great things about Anita Hill was that after her testimony it became impossible even for Neanderthals to do business as usual. They, or we, try but it isn’t the same ball game at all.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.