The new documentary about Anita Hill opens with a closeup of a telephone and a bizarre voice message:
“Good morning, Anita Hill. It’s Ginni Thomas, and I just wanted to reach across the air waves, and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime, and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought, I certainly pray about this and hope one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. OK! Have a good day.”
Those words, left on Hill’s office voice mail in October 2010, are the last we hear from Ginni Thomas in “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” by Oscar-winning director Freida Mock, which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday. And it’s probably for the best.
It’s been more than 22 years since the Senate Judiciary Committee heard a soft-spoken 35-year-old University of Oklahoma law professor recount graphic instances of sexual harassment at the hands of her former boss and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Despite Ginni Thomas’ prayers, Hill has never backed down from her allegations. Why would she, since she was so obviously telling the truth?
The documentary, by Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Mock, is an unabashed love letter to Hill, guaranteed to open old wounds, especially for conservatives who never believed Hill or felt that graphic sexual banter in the workplace was harmless. It examines Hill’s life in the aftermath of a spotlight she did not seek, and the positive legacy of her long-ago testimony.
At 57, she seems serene and happy. She teaches law at Brandeis University and is in a long-term relationship with a restaurateur named Chuck Malone, who seems crazy about her.
It’s painful to be dragged back into the past, via old clips, as senators try to embarrass Hill by forcing her to repeat porn names like “Long Dong Silver,” descriptions of pubic hair on Coke cans and discussions of penis size she says she was forced to endure as Thomas’ employee at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At a long table by herself, in a blue turquoise suit, she sits calmly, without erupting or crying. When pressed about why she hadn’t come forward sooner, she seems as perplexed as some of the senators. But 20 years ago, that wasn’t exactly unusual behavior for women whose bosses made unwanted sexual advances. It still isn’t.
Without a trace of rancor, Hill says that when she returned to Oklahoma after the hearings, “Republicans tried to get the school to fire me, even though I was tenured. My dean – they tried to get him fired. They tried to close the law school. I was threatened with just about everything— death, sexual violence.”
No question, what the Senate Judiciary hearings unleashed was dreadful for Hill (and certainly it was no picnic for Clarence Thomas, either). But it was also a watershed moment in American politics. American women looked at how the Senate treated Hill and said: This is not right.
The all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by then-Sen. Joseph Biden, grilled her, impugned her honesty and forced her to repeat the most graphic insults.
“They were humiliating her by making her go over these things again and again and again,” said New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who appears in the film along with Jill Abramson, now the New York Times executive editor, with whom she wrote the 1994 book “Strange Justice.” The book will leave you with no doubts about Thomas’ proclivities.
Hill was hung out to dry by the committee’s Democrats, who really did not want to have a conversation about a black Supreme Court nominee sexually harassing an employee while leading the EEOC. (Sen. Ted Kennedy, the documentary points out, was so compromised that he was played in a “Saturday Night Live” skit about the hearings by an actor with a bag over his head.)
And she was brutalized by the committee’s Republicans. The documentary shows a clip of Alan Simpson of Wyoming saying he’d gotten letters, phone calls and faxes warning him to “watch out for this woman” about “this sexual harassment crap.”
I’m glad that Mock included the powerful clip of Thomas responding to Hill’s accusations, his only meaningful appearance in the film. It is a tour de force of indignation as he tells senators he is the victim of a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”
That phrase still resonates today for John Carr, an African American attorney and friend of Hill’s who testified on her behalf in the Senate. “I hate the term ‘race card,’” says Carr. “But that’s what he did.”
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who stepped forward to support Hill when he saw that no other high-profile black men had, also takes exception to Thomas’s hyperbole.
“They didn’t say, ‘Hey wait a minute. What about the legal lynching of a black woman?” Ogletree says. “They didn’t want to be appearing to go after a black man who said ‘I didn’t do it.’ And for them, the case was closed.”
A few days after Hill testified, Thomas was confirmed by the Senate, 52 to 48.
The documentary doesn’t mention this, but 10 years later, Thomas cast one of the deciding votes in 2001’s Bush vs. Gore, which handed the presidency to the son of the man who appointed him to the high court. The vote occurred as Ginni Thomas was helping the Bush transition team draw up lists of possible Bush administration appointees.
So did Hill “lose”? Hardly.
Her testimony may have failed to block the appointment of an accused sexual harasser, who went on to become one of the Supreme Court’s most reliably conservative justices.
But it accomplished something much bigger, and arguably more important: She woke the country up to the issue of workplace sexual harassment, and especially to the complexities of a victim’s response.
The hearings also galvanized a new generation of female political leaders. The following year was joyously dubbed “the Year of the Woman” as women in unprecedented numbers ran for the House and Senate. (It was maybe a bit of an overstatement, considering only four women, including Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, were elected to the U.S. Senate that year, bringing the total to six. It’s 20 today.)
Looking back, it is hard to believe how naïve Hill was when she innocently walked into that political buzz saw in 1991.
“I didn’t expect any part of the investigation of a Supreme Court nominee to be partisan,” she says in the documentary. “I assumed that everybody on the Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to make sure they were putting someone who was ultimately qualfied and who was of the highest integrity.”
Maybe it’s small consolation, but she was not alone.