The Legacy of Anita Hill, Then and Now
Sad fact: there are few women of my generation who don’t have what is known as our “Anita story.” Mine occurred in 1980. I was five years out of law school and had decided to shift my career from practice to teaching. I was walking down a long hallway at the Association of American Law Schools meat market for new hires. There were two men behind me who were joking about the excellent shape of my legs and the unusually well-defined musculature of my lower quadrants. (Did I mention that it was a very, very long hallway?) At the end of that eternal passage was my appointed interview room. I escaped into it, only to be followed by the two. They, as it turned out, were doing the hiring.
Life was like that sometimes, I thought. And so I went through all the proper motions of expressing how much my fine ideas could contribute to their faculty, pretending that nothing had happened.
I didn’t stop pretending nothing had happened until 1991, when Anita Hill testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the unwanted office approaches of her boss, then-chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Clarence Thomas. I remember how still and dignified she was at the center of that howling hurricane of mockery, meanness and machismo. It was like some psychedelic cross between The Crucible and The Wizard of Oz, with its swirling fantasies of witchcraft, conspiracy theories and mad satyric orgies. I remember everyone from Orrin Hatch to Rush Limbaugh dismissing anything that “might have happened” as “bedroom politics,” even though Hill’s allegations centered on misbehavior in the boardroom, not the bedroom, and even though those allegations implicated precisely Thomas’s public ethics as the chief enforcement officer of sexual harassment laws. “He said, she said” entered the national vocabulary. So did “They just don’t get it.”
Anita Hill graduated from Yale Law School in 1980. The percentage of women in law schools was 38 percent—in contrast to the approximately 50 percent it is today. Back in those times there were so few women among the legal professoriate that many law schools didn’t even have women’s bathrooms. And as for women of color—there were only five or six of us teaching in the entire United States.
If the percentages of women in all professions improved over the next decade or so, the ability to speak up and speak out was often constrained by fear of losing status, ruining one’s career. It was the shockingly abysmal treatment of Anita Hill by the United States Senate that changed all that. Women were mobilized in a way unseen since the time of the suffragettes. EMILY’s List took off, as well as hundreds of networks for women’s political empowerment. Twenty years later, if some men’s behavior has not changed as much as one might have hoped, the collective women’s response has undergone seismic change. It’s not “nothing” anymore.
Anita Hill remains an icon to whom subsequent generations are rightfully indebted. At the same time, she has not remained trapped by her own symbolism or frozen in time. It is sometimes forgotten that she is a respected scholar of contract jurisprudence, commercial law and education policy. She is a prolific author, publishing numerous law review articles, essays, editorials and books. Today, Hill is a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University. Much of her most recent research has been on the housing market, and her most recent book, published this month, is Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home.
It is ironic that the full substance of Hill’s remarkable intellectual presence remains so overshadowed by those fleeting, if powerful, moments of her Senate testimony. If the larger accomplishments of her life aren’t quite as iconic as that confrontation with Clarence Thomas, they nonetheless merit attention by feminists and scholars alike. To begin with, Hill is a remarkably elegant and accessible writer. For those who wish to apprehend the gravitas of her intelligence and dignity, Reimagining Equality would be a good place to start.
Some will remember that Hill was introduced at the 1991 hearings in the company of a large family—she is the youngest of thirteen children—but very little attention was paid to the significance of that protective wall of humanity. It helps, through this book, to have met Mollie Elliot, Hill’s determined maternal great-grandmother, born into slavery in 1847. It is instructive to read about how her grandfather fled Arkansas in 1914, narrowly escaping an old-fashioned, low-tech lynching. It is inspiring to know that her mother, Erma Hill, would have been 100 years old on October 16, and that “each day I honor her by working to live up to her dream that I will find a more just America than the one she lived in and that, as she did, I will leave it better than I found it.”
Despite this, Reimagining Equality is not principally a memoir. The arc of “home” ranges from her ancestors’ efforts at making their Arkansas farm a secure geographic space to her own settling in Massachusetts as the homesteading of an identity even more than of literal place alone. This trajectory is accompanied by a brilliantly lucid detailing of the apportionment of American real estate—and along with it, the American dream—along the lines of race, gender and class. While the most memorable heroines of this book are women who struggle to make a safe and nurturing domestic space of their own, the underlying narrative antagonism is rooted in a universal story that affects us all—of corrupt, downwardly spiraling land and banking practices that have disproportionately targeted women, minorities and the poor. From the 1800s to today, Hill meticulously tracks notions of communities split by the government’s investment in racialized redlining of neighborhoods; of encompassing traditions of maternity riven by neonatalist notions about which mothers should be having more or fewer babies; and of “ghetto lending practices” that have poisonously metastasized into today’s bundled subprime mortgage crisis.
Reimagining Equality is an important achievement. Hill manages to humanize and reinvigorate the American promise of security in one’s pride of home—even against the backdrop of harder-edged, more militaristically inflected calls to “homeland security.” The kinder, gentler complications that Hill brings to bear in teasing out this contrast are an eloquent continuation of her giving voice to the invisible, the voiceless, the undocumented, the hopeless and, yes, the all too literally homeless.
In 1991, Anita Hill made history by the simple yet terrifically courageous act of standing up to an arrogantly gender-biased political culture, as well as that part of “the public [who] rejected the testimony of my life experience.” Twenty years later, let us make sure that her written legacy is no less remembered than Thomas’s radically right-leaning Supreme Court opinions. Let us honor her by fully recognizing the liveliness of her ongoing cultural engagement: the excavation of a resonant equality that shimmers at the heart of the American dream, a light that demands its place as a beacon to all Americans, and beyond.
Also in This Forum
“A Thank-You Note to Anita Hill,” by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
“Black Women Still in Defense of Ourselves,” by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
“How Anita Hill Changed the World,” by Katha Pollitt
“Taking Up the Legacy of Anita Hill,” by Jessica Valenti