The Anita Hill Hearings: When ‘Just Life’ Became Sexual Harassment, and Sexual Harassment Became Wrong

The Anita Hill Hearings: When ‘Just Life’ Became Sexual Harassment, and Sexual Harassment Became Wrong

The Anita Hill Hearings: When ‘Just Life’ Became Sexual Harassment, and Sexual Harassment Became Wrong

Twenty years after Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she’d experienced working for Clarence Thomas, the facts of the hearing and its aftermath are still widely unknown.


After the hearings in which Anita Hill testified about the harassment she’d been subjected to as an employee working under Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education and EEOC, and after Thomas had been confirmed to the Supreme Court, polls suggested that 70 percent of Americans felt Hill had been treated fairly by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It would take years before Hill would be vindicated in the view of the broader public—but, in the words of Catharine MacKinnon, the hearings served as a “massive consciousness-changing session” for the entire country. Even those who didn’t believe her were forced to admit that if what she said was true, Thomas should not have been confirmed to the Supreme Court—implicitly acknowledging that sexual harassment, long considered “just life,” was wrong, and women shouldn’t have to put up with it.

This is some of what I learned at the Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later conference at Hunter College today. The truth of the hearings, and their aftermath, is still widely unknown; so much so that the day started with a panel simply entitled “The Witnesses: What Happened?” Some other things you might now know:

When information about Hill’s allegations emerged, the Judiciary Committee did not at first consider the matter sufficiently relevant to pursue the allegations. It took pressure from female members of Congress and female law professors to convince the committee to hold hearings.

But Anita Hill had not come forward herself with testimony. She was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee when staffers became aware of reports of her experience as Thomas’s employee.

As you know, the Hill/Thomas proceedings were a political process, not a legal proceeding. As a consequence, it was up to the whims of the Judiciary Committee, and in particular its chair, Joe Biden, to entertain or dismiss additional evidence—evidence that existed—that would have corroborated Hill’s story. Other women who offered to come forward with stories of harassment were not given a chance to do so. Information about Thomas’s use of pornography was not considered. Biden did not allow experts on sexual harassment, the nature of harassment and typical responses to harassment, to testify.

The Supreme Court said that sexual harassment was illegal in 1968. But it wasn’t until Hill told her story publicly that the country was forced to confront the question of whether sexual harassment would be met with cultural, as well as legal, opprobrium. One of the impediments to a fair hearing was, as MacKinnon put it today, the fact that the country did not know “how to talk about sexuality in dignified public settings.”

After the Anita Hill hearings, claims of workplace sexual harassment across the country tripled. Meanwhile, state legislators in Oklahoma pressured the University of Oklahoma Law School to fire Hill.

My colleague Frank Reynolds and I were lucky enough to interview a number of the panelists from today’s event during the day, and we’ll have a video featuring those women reflecting on the legacy of Anita Hill on soon. In the meantime, you can check out our forum on the twentieth anniversary of the hearings, featuring Patricia Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Jessica Valenti and Katha Pollitt. This Jeffrey Toobin piece on Thomas, which includes a reconsideration of the Anita Hill hearings, is also an excellent read.


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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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