Anita Hill: ‘It was worth it’

Anita Hill looks back on the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings and her allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in the new doc “Anita.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In the documentary “Anita,” which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in four sold-out screenings beginning Saturday, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Mock focuses her lens on law professor Anita Hill (who hadn’t yet seen the film at press time). More than 20 years after Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in turbulent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Hill is an author, professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and a frequent speaker on sexual discrimination and civil rights.

Was it worth it — “it” being the hard times you went through because of the hearings and the aftermath? Looking at it from 2013, was it worth what you went through to be where you are today?

In 1991, when I was called to testify — I was actually subpoenaed — I set myself a goal to truthfully talk about the experience I had with Clarence Thomas because I thought, and I still think, that it reflected on his ability to be an impartial judge in any case involving the law, but certainly any case involving civil rights, inequality issues. Having done that, yes, it was worth it. I have no regrets.


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How did the documentary come about?

I had been approached by two or three filmmakers about doing a documentary, and for two or three years I simply said no, and Freida Mock had come back a couple of times. I wanted to work to make sure that if the story was told that at least I had some positive input. So after talking with Freida, I just felt that she was the right person to tell the story. She persuaded me in this very calm, clear way that I and the story would be in good hands. And that’s all she promised me.

The documentary follows you to the present and shows you at speaking engagements before rapt audiences. Would it be fair to say that you’ve become a civil rights leader, despite having gone into the field with the goal of being a civil rights lawyer/bureaucrat?

I think one has to separate what happened in terms of the testimony. My purpose in testifying was really about the fitness of the individual who was being considered for the Supreme Court. It was not to shed awareness or shine a light on the problems of sexual harassment.

And yet that happened nonetheless.

Absolutely, it happened nonetheless. The consequences that have occurred since, I’m certainly happy about. I am thrilled that, for example, after the hearing that the number of complaints of sexual harassment increased astronomically. In fact, I realized that immediately following the testimony, the conventional wisdom was that no one [else] was going to come forward. And what happened was that women, after hearing the testimony, really started to recognize that they did have rights. And so that’s when the rules in the workplace started changing, that’s when the climate in some workplaces started changing and that’s when women started coming forward.

In one speaking engagement, you said, “We have been building on an understanding of what equality means ... and we have a much better sense of what it takes to get there in 2012 than we did in 1991.” What do you think we’ve learned?

I think we’ve learned that it takes more than just having laws on the books. You really have to have the will to enforce them. And they have to be enforced not just by people bringing complaints but they have to be enforced by employers who are willing to actually stake zero tolerance for discrimination, whether it’s in the form of harassment or any other form. You also have to have teeth in the laws, so that if a person does come forward with a complaint, it can’t simply be a slap on the hand for a violation. I also think that the public attitude about discrimination needs to change.

In that speech, you also said, “Despite all the inequalities that exist in the world, I still believe with all my heart that we’re on the verge of something monumental and profound, and I still want to be part of that change.” What did you mean?

I think we’re continuing to grow as a society and the level of public awareness is increasing. If you had asked the population in 1991 if sexual harassment was illegal, I think you might have had maybe 10% or 20% of the public saying, yes, there are rules against this behavior. I think if you asked today you’d have 70% of the population, at a minimum, saying yes, this is illegal behavior and it needs to stop. That’s a profound gain for equality. Laws can do so much, but what really has to happen is for there to be a cultural shift, and that’s what I think is happening, that we’re on the verge of that cultural shift.

Were you surprised to see the so-called war against women emerge in the recent election?

Some of the stereotypes and myths that support power that rely on misogyny and sexism continue to exist. And they’re just hard to die because that’s what people have grown up with. Yeah, I am a bit surprised that they resurfaced, but not entirely surprised.

What do you think of Thomas’ years on the Supreme Court?

Since I can in no way be objective, I decline to comment.

In the documentary, you say that the Clarence Thomas hearings changed the way you viewed the world. How so?

I had the worldview of a lawyer, I think. When you’re trained in the law and you teach the law, you’re trained to think of the world in much more abstractions than is realistic even. Once I experienced the hearing and the aftermath, I started to see that the law had this real possibility to change the way people actually existed in the world. I also had thought of myself as a fairly private person with responsibility to my family and my students, and after the hearings I started to feel that I had a responsibility to more than just the handful of people I came into contact with every day. That, especially when I started talking about issues of equality more publicly, I started feeling a sense of belonging to society in a different way, the larger society being a part of a community to which I felt responsible. And that’s a very big difference.

Observers in the film said Thomas’ supporters were out to shred your credibility. It made me wonder whether you were a canary in the coal mine for the extreme partisanship that has developed in Washington over the past 20 years.

The divisions were stark. Opinions were strident. And in many ways, at the time of the hearing they seemed to be such that they couldn’t be reconciled. It was him against her. Since we’ve become a bit more informed about the issues, then I think people are starting to have a little different opinion: They’re saying you can be a Republican and still believe her. And I think the common understanding initially is that people were told that if you were a Republican you can only believe him. You have to portray her as a liar. And so, I think we’ve changed. I think we’ve grown and I think we’ve gotten beyond the politics of the hearings to have a better understanding of the problems of sexual harassment.


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