By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — It was 30 years ago this month that Anita Hill sat in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in what would become landmark testimony about sexual harassment she said she had endured working for her former boss, Clarence Thomas, who, at the time was chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Thomas had been nominated by President George H.W. Bush for a seat on the Supreme Court and Hill was interviewed as part of his confirmation hearing.
As she was grilled on live television mercilessly by 14 white male senators, chaired by then-Sen. Joe Biden, Hill’s testimony was said to have ignited a movement.
Thomas went on to be confirmed by a 52-48 Senate vote and is now the most senior member of the nine-member court.
After the 1991 hearings, Hill became a leading figure in the fight for women’s rights and against gender-based violence. Thirty years later, she says she has no regrets about what she started and has every intention of finishing.
On Oct. 16, Hill sat on the stage at the Bing Theater on the USC campus to take part in “Because of Anita: Truth, Justice, Race, Gender, and Power — 30 Years Later, with Professor Anita Hill,” a conversation about the 30th anniversary of that Senate hearing, its impact, the stress and death threats she endured, plus to talk about her latest book, “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence.”
“Because of Anita: Truth, Justice, Race, Gender, and Power” is also the name of a podcast helmed by Salamishah Tillet and Cindi Leive. In the podcast, Hill can be heard saying, “Would I do it again? Yes.”
In her new book, Hill offers new insights into her experience. She draws on her years as a teacher, a legal scholar and an advocate, and on the experiences of the thousands of individuals who have told her their stories, to trace the pipeline of harassment that follows individuals from place to place.
Along with the immeasurable harm it causes, Hill exposes gender-based violence as a public crisis and a national embarrassment that has cast a dark shadow over every branch of the government, civilian and military.
Hill, now 65 with hints of gray in her shoulder-length hair, was casually dressed in a silky white blouse and bluish-gray pants. She sat properly in her chair with her hands resting in her lap. She said she’s learned, over the years, how to remain poised.
She seemed to be in great spirits and very appreciative of the nearly sold-out audience in attendance.
Hill spoke freely about her ordeal and admitted that in the beginning she didn’t want to be involved.
“I did hesitate, initially,” she said. “I didn’t want to get caught up in politics.
“Why was it important? The court mattered. We were responding to what I believe is our civic responsibility to provide information about the character and fitness of an individual who has been or was intended to be making decisions in a lifetime appointment to the court. Decisions that would impact your and our lives. That was the motivation and remains the motivation for us. The integrity of the court is only as strong as the integrity of the members who sit on it.”
Hill credits her family with helping her to get through the stressful hearings, which was followed by death threats and harassment.
“I couldn’t have done what I did in 1991 without the love and support of my parents who lived the majority of their lives in segregation,” said Hill, the youngest of 13 children. “My mother was always preparing us for the world they hoped would come.”
Although her testimony did not sway the committee’s decision to confirm Thomas, Hill is proud that she testified.
“I like to think my testimony wasn’t a failure,” she said. “Many in the Senate didn’t hear me. Many in the public did.”
Hill said what sticks with her about the hearings was the omission of several other women, including a woman named Angela Wright, who never got to testify.
“There were witnesses ready to testify who were not called,” said Hill, a professor of social policy, law, and women’s and gender studies at Brandeis University. “That’s what sticks with me when people ask what went wrong. There was a lot wrong and there were a lot of awful things said and lies that were told.
“But the inability and unwillingness to have those four individuals who had corroborating information about their own experiences and they were not called to testify. And every one of those individuals was a Black women.”
Hill said it became clear to her that this was another example of how “Black women’s voices don’t matter and are discounted and erased and disregarded.”
“They remained faceless,” she said. “Their humanity was erased. That’s what sticks with me. We see it now. We are disregarded and the disregard of Black women is historical in terms of our struggle for gender justice, especially when it comes to sexual abuse. It’s a reflection of the value we put on women — at its worst.”
Hill was asked how she felt about Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ford alleged that Justice Brett Kavanaugh attacked her more than three decades ago when they were in high school.
Kavanaugh became an associate justice of the Supreme Court on Oct. 6, 2018.
“Christine Blasey Ford, that was a wake-up call,” Hill said. “It wasn’t that nothing could change because people saw it as a wake-up call. Why hasn’t the Senate Judiciary Committee changed? What is there that needs to change?
“We need to bring them along to where the country needs to be. When it comes down to it, it’s about all of us having value and all of us really deserving a right to basic safety and security and authority over our own bodies.”
Hill also addressed the awkward voicemail she received from Justice Thomas’s wife, Virginia Thomas.
“It was 20 years after the hearing,” Hill said. “I really could see right through. This was another effort to intimidate and sort of get me to get involved in some kind of fight with Mrs. Thomas. It started out with seeking to extend an olive branch. But, I wasn’t having it.”
Hill’s appearance at USC was the culmination of a series of afternoon panels all designed to bring individual insight and understanding to what happened during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings and just how much things have or have not changed.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.