Still Speaking Truth: Anita Hill in a Conversation With Robin Morgan
More than 23 years after Anita Hill testified before a Senate committee of 14 white men about the sexual harassment she had experienced at the hands of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the new film Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (directed by Freida Mock) is bringing the story of her life to a new generation, and reminding us all of the resounding impact of her speaking up. In this transcribed excerpt from Hill’s conversation with Robin Morgan on “Women’s Media Center Live,” Hill talks about the impact of the experience on her life and on the nation, and her unwavering hope for the future. The full conversation, which aired April 26, is available by podcast at wmclive.com and iTunes.
AH: It was 1991, but when you look at the film you see that panel of the Senate, all of these men, white men sitting there in their grey suits, and they’re surrounded by this bevy of staff, and there’s me in this green dress—I can’t even imagine that I could have chosen a more contrasting color—and the image of that really seems something more like the 1950s than the 1990s.
RM: One of the moments when I thought back to the contrast between you and that panel was recently when there were hearings about sexual assault in the military. In the hot seat where you had sat, there were all of these stern, uniformed, white male generals, and on the other side, in the Senate committee, was, for the first time, almost a critical mass of women senators grilling them.
AH: It’s a sea change. And it just shows why our presence is so important in those bodies. It’s because of the deliberations that go on behind the scenes, but it’s also important in terms of the public confidence in whether or not we can in fact trust our representation. They ask questions that maybe the men won’t ask, or can’t even formulate. And so that experience really is important today and will continue to be important, not only on this issue and the issue of sexual assault in the military, but any number of issues—equal pay, concerns about sexual assault on college campuses. We have still a real need to be represented and to have our real lives reflected in the policies that come out of Washington.
RM: To this day I can’t quite forgive Joe Biden for not permitting the other three women to testify that the same thing had happened to them, which would have changed everything. You’ve been paying for it for many years with extraordinary grace—you built a life, you’re a wonderful, beloved professor, you’ve written books and published them—but the cost was considerable.
AH: One of the things I want the people to understand as they watch the film is that the process really matters. The way that the Senate, and Joe Biden as chair, set up that process was a deliberate attempt—or maybe an inadvertent one, but it was one that was effective—it effectively said that this is a ‘he said/she said’ matter, [when] in fact there were three other women who were ready to talk about very similar behavior that they had experienced or had witnessed. All of this talk about, ‘well it’s only her word against his,’ was something that was contrived. It wasn’t true, it wasn’t accurate. There are costs to that process going the way that it did, because after it was set up that way, some of the allegations that the various senators raised about what my motives were, and even worse things that were said—Orin Hatch waving a copy of The Exorcist—opened the door for lawmakers and critics in Oklahoma to attack me even after the hearings were over. But I had my parents’ and my siblings’ undying support. I also had the support of many of my colleagues at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where I was teaching. And so what I tell women, young and old and middle-aged, when they are coming forward, is make sure you know what your support is, because even today not everybody has what I had. That’s tragic, and it makes it all the more important that they have fair processes. But that level of support that I had enabled me to weather the storm of those attacks, and actually then enabled me to say, ‘You know what, I have got to make something out of this terrible situation. It’s not enough to get over and go back to my life as it was. I have to do more with it.’
RM: You have done more with it. A year later, 1992, became the Year of the Woman—women flooded the polls with the notion that we had to have more women in Congress. What did it feel like when you discovered that there were all these women who basically were saying, ‘You too?’?
AH: [After] feeling so embattled, I think when I first noticed it was when letters started coming to me directly. It was so important for me to hear from people who were writing from their hearts about what they had experienced, and how they saw the hearings in starkly different terms than what was being portrayed by a lot of people in the press. A lot of people were even blaming me, saying, ‘Oh, no woman’s ever going to come forward again.’ So it was important for me to hear from real people about their experiences. I have received roughly twenty-five thousand letters, and I keep getting them. In the last few years roughly forty percent of the people I hear from—and in very supportive ways—are men. People say I’m sort of Pollyanna-ish, or I’m an optimist, I don’t know, but I have seen change, and I’ve seen it in my lifetime in the way people think and talk, and it just helps me believe that I can continue to see even greater change.
The other thing that you see is young women and girls who are so emboldened to fight, whether it’s street harassment, or [bullying and harassment] at school. I think we are leaving them a legacy that they will take and extend even beyond where we think it can go.
RM: You remember my old fantasy, that I’ve had for years, since we first met? My fantasy is still that at some point Clarence Thomas will actually be impeached from the Supreme Court, and that some president—maybe Hillary!—will name you to the court. That would be justice. Maybe I need to write it as a novel so life can imitate art.
AH: Well, I'd buy the novel! I would buy the novel, definitely. And in the meantime, I will continue to do all that I can.