I Believe Anita Hill
Oh, the life lessons we, as women, learn from TV. And some days, the greatest challenge of this podcast is identifying the core component of a lesson and presenting it to you in a way that resonates.
Lessons of diligence, courage, teamwork and believing in yourself … this is powerful stuff delivered in the most powerful medium in our country. It needs to be part of our shared experience as women of America.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory examines the most basic elements of an event that changed the lives of American women. It captivated millions of viewers; it was talked about by millions more. It was the era before the internet, but came about courtesy of cable TV. I am speaking of Anita Hill and her testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
CBS on Anita
Let’s hope that the writers of herstory include as many paragraphs as possible about the courage and message of Anita Hill when she took the stand to testify as a witness in Washington, D.C. In October 1991, Professor Hill appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was televised on C-SPAN. She told her story of being a young lawyer in Washington, in two government offices. Thomas was her boss.
The obvious lesson, and in fact Professor Hill’s legacy, is that sometimes that which is difficult is essential. Truth can be painful, even more so to relive, share on national TV and be scolded and intimidated by a group of powerful, white men seated at a table.
We’ll review Hill’s testimony, exchanges she had with both Democrat and Republican senators and we’ll hear a bit from Hill herself, two decades later, about why it was all worth it.
First, some background.
In July 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals to succeed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall had been the first African-American on the high court. Thomas would be only the second.
A nominee is fully appointed through a majority vote of the United States Senate, which in 1991 held a Democratic majority. Prior to that vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts a hearing, while behind the scenes, the FBI and other agencies vet the nominee.
For a candidate such as Thomas, his earlier appointment to the Court of Appeals, just 18 months earlier, should have made his vetting simpler. But. this was a time though when Supreme Court nominations had hit a particularly contentious reception with the public and the Senate. In 1987, Judge Robert Bork had been nominated to the high court by President Reagan. C-SPAN and cable TV’s 24 hour news cycle was hard at work conducting its own vetting of Judge Bork in the court of public opinion. When your resume includes that you were instrumental in firing the Watergate Special Prosecutor who had requested President Nixon’s tapes, you should know it’s an uphill battle.
Bork’s nomination was defeated by an orchestrated onslaught of telephone calls, letters and demonstrations. This is a glaring moment in history that revealed the growing power of messaging and political strategists using selected media and constituencies to engage in the political process. So by the time President Bush placed Thomas’ name into nomination, political operatives and the media were in a race to out who he really was.
In the case of Judge Clarence Thomas, Bush, who had been vice president under Reagan, did not want this to turn into another Bork. The Bush operatives weren’t going to play Mr. Nice Guy this time. Decades later, Hill reflects candidly on that point … something I’ll get to in a bit.
So as you’ll hear from her statement, Professor Hill was contacted by a “member of the Judiciary Committee” and asked to provide a statement regarding her experience in working for Thomas nearly a decade earlier. Three months after President Bush announced Thomas as his candidate for the court, the committee convened. The media had become aware of Professor Hill’s statement, so it was with tremendous fanfare that C-SPAN aired the entire testimony that comprised Judge Thomas’ hearing.
Complain about cable TV all you want but without C-SPAN – which is the acronym for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, transparency wouldn’t be what it is today. In the early 80s, the New York Times praised it for its entry into areas once shielded from public view. Sometimes it’s dry. But in 1991, all eyes were on C-SPAN coverage.
Now my disclaimer to you: having watched it in my late 20s, I found re-watching the hours of testimony to be incredibly painful. My respect for Professor Hill, her composure and her morals has only grown in 25 years. My disdain for a table of men, accorded power by the people, to denigrate and intimidate a citizen who didn’t invite this upon herself – my disdain has multiplied exponentially. So I confess I didn’t review all the testimony, Hill’s or Thomas’.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a woman who remembers the testimony and the news who DOESN’T shiver a bit. One listener - who learned I was tackling an Anita Hill segment sent me this note:
In 1991, I was 21. I was raised in a strange paradox of Republicanism and gender equality (I find those mutually exclusive today). My dad was a conservative, but was raised by his older sisters after his father died when he was 9. He taught me to think for myself, which has lead me to being a liberal. I think my dad was proud of that. I like to think he was. As a young woman, I started to question the conservative notion that Hill “asked for it” or that she was lying for her own gain. (what gain?) As an older woman, I look back and wonder “Is this where rape culture became abundantly obvious to anyone who chooses to look at it?” It grieves me the way that Hill was minimized. The way Anita Hill is treated in the hearings is a tiny, tiny view into what every rape victim faces. And why so many of us choose to never say a word.Watching the testimony was like watching verbal rape
Find excellent montages and entire testimony from Hill and Thomas on You Tube. It’s hard to watch but turn it on while you’re cleaning your oven or fridge and you’ll never have a better shine. I swear.
C-SPAN gave it to us real time, but Hill herself says that enough time has passed that this story needs to be re-told. So here it is, with an attendant amount of sugar to make the medicine go down.
First, the story is best told by Hill herself in her statement, which was ranked as #69 in American Rhetoric's Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century – according to Wikipedia.
What’s not to believe about this woman’s credibility? Following her statement her family was ushered in to the hearing room. Wearing a conservative teal jacket and likely a matching or black skirt, Professor Hill gained confidence in her cadence, but there are moments when you can hear her pause. And her voice quivered. I so wished I could give her a hug. Her upbringing didn’t prepare her to discuss pornography, oral sex, any man’s endowment, a man’s prowess or sex with animals with anyone, let alone her boss or a table of powerful white men.
Back to Hill
Remember everything your mother told you about your reputation? In itself, for an African American woman of working-class parents to attend college and law school and hold a position as a law professor – in 1991 this was a big deal. She was a role model for women of all colors. She had chosen government work – toiling in policy to create level playing fields for children, teachers and later government employees. This wasn’t reality TV, this was one woman re-telling some of her most unpleasant moments of her early career on a field that was anything but level.
Professor Hill has dotted every I and crossed every T. She has answered in detail the subsequent contact she had with Judge Thomas. Sure she had relegated the past to the past, but the contacts she had with him were professional in nature. Senators had no clue of the continued value she had to place on her professional affiliation with him. What? No woman scorned? No emotional outburst? The lesson here: Anita Hill did not have the luxury not to fear the consequences. Not as a woman in the 1980s…not as a woman of color and certainly not in relation to sexual harassment.
So there you have it. No motivation to take this to any public level until she was asked to do so, in light of his nomination to the highest court in the United States. She’s an officer of the court and professor to aspiring lawyers. Had she declined to come forward, sexism and sexual harassment would have prevailed. We can only admire both her courage as well as her impeccable resume and delivery as the proverbial well-placed pump that kept the door ajar just long enough for America to sit up, take notice and change.
Okay, now for the hard part. Some of the inquiry conducted by members of the United States Senate. All men. Of course, all men. Professor Hill gave every woman in America the playbook of how to manage an untenable situation when it was happening and how to recount it, years later. Her appearance and testimony literally changed lives, as she recounted in 2014 in an interview with CBS This Morning.
CBS Her Life
To listen to the hearing is to understand that middle aged and old white men, in power, have no way to understand Anita Hill’s experience. Most lawyers. Some were assigned the task of destroying her credibility. They were used to questioning until they got answers which proved they were the smartest ones in the room.
At the table, the only thing that separated the male perspective Republican from Democrat was the aggressiveness. Vice President Joe Biden who chaired the committee as the senator from Delaware was at times very gracious, but also gratuitous, such as, asking her to recite, for the record, Thomas’ graphic comments to her or making a big deal about having her introduce her family. Gratuitous – now you have a working definition.
Next came the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania. Arlen Specter was a Republican in the Senate until 2009 when the party showed him the door and he became a Democrat. He was also a former district attorney in Philadelphia and he was the very worst. I give Professor Hill all the credit in the world for making it through each of his turns at the microphone without throwing up, walking out or screaming.
Specter Notes Docs
Spector asked numerous questions, often rambling. His statements leading up to sort of questions were in reference to documents that were not fully vetted themselves. His wandering remarks that led up to some sort of question often required Hill’s close attention. Without fail, she’d let him prattle on for a few minutes and then, with a straight face and earnest voice, she would ask, “Could you be more clear? I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
Hill returned each volley with precision. Point Hill. In this clip, Specter attempts to undermine her credibility through a statement provided by the Dean of Oral Roberts University Law School – a white man at a conservative private institution.
THIS is the fuzzy memory most American women who lived through these long weeks of herstory remember about the hearings. But amazingly, back to the 2014 CBS This Morning interview conducted by Gayle King and Charlie Rose, Rose has the gall to ask perhaps THE most inane question of the year.
CBS Morning 2
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory gives you just enough knowledge about Anita Hill to defend her honor in a hostile conversation. Find the hours of material on YouTube. Read Hill’s works about the hearings, sexual harassment and gender issues. Her 1995 work, Race, Gender and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings, which she co-edited with Emma Coleman Jordan is also a great source.
Through the years, Hill has continued the work she loves and to be a voice for professional women facing steep odds. Her autobiography Speaking Truth to Power came out in 1997 and documents the Clarence Thomas matter, as well as her interest in civil and human rights. She’s among the many who contributed to the 2003 Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women's Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan.
Her third book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home came out in 2011. Hill’s currently University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women's and Gender Studies at Brandeis University. University Professor is one of Brandeis University’s most prestigious academic honors. Brandeis describes the position as a faculty member of surpassing eminence whose work cuts across boundaries. Not far from Boston, Brandeis is a very cool institution, founded by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish member of the high court.
The Brandeis motto, translated to English, is “Truth even unto its innermost parts.” I’m guessing they weren’t thinking those parts would include genitalia.
Hill is quoted as saying “I resent the idea that people would blame the messenger for the message, rather than looking at the content of the message itself.” Through the power of television, the message indeed sunk into the very fabric of our American experience. It changed us. Sexuality, rape culture, victims’ rights, evidence, even the existence of a show like Law & Order SVU… where would we be without Anita Hill and her courage?
CBS This Morning Outcome 3
Thanks for listening to this important segment. There’s a lot to absorb. Audio has been pulled from the CBS This Morning interview of 2014 conducted by Gayle King and Charlie Rose.
This was a topic too emotional and too powerful to just let it fly from my keyboard to my microphone. So I am grateful to good friend Petra, high-powered attorney with memory of steel, who endured marathon document editing without breaking a sweat and has a feminist heart of gold. Friendly listeners, it’s you, Petra and so many others who own a piece of Advanced TV Herstory.
If you don’t already, subscribe to Advanced TV Herstory on iTunes or our hosting site, Libsyn. Follow us on Twitter – our handle is AT TVHerstory. This script and past scripts are found at my website, cynthiabemisabrams.com and is a place you can leave comments or make inquiry for a presentation. Share your thoughts about this installment or ideas for others by shooting an email to advancedtvherstory at gmail.com.
You are a peach for listening and I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.