Where is Anita Hill?

Mark Hancock/Oklahoma Gazette

Oklahoma Gazette | August 31, 2006
Over a murmur of voices, 35-year-old law professor Anita Hill made her statement before a cluster of microphones. Video rolled, shutter buttons clicked, and male and female students watched alongside the press, packed in Room 2 of the University of Oklahoma College of Law and Law Center in Norman.

“I did not go to the press,” she said, deliberately. “The press came to me.”

It was Monday, Oct. 7, 1991. The weekend before, National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg and Newsday had broken the story: Hill had alleged her former supervisor at the very place committed to enforcing anti-discrimination in the workplace — the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — sexually harassed her 10 years earlier. He was Clarence Thomas, President George H.W. Bush’s nominee to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.

In Norman and around the country, the story erupted across headlines and in workplaces. Female legislators angry at their male colleagues’ seeming indifference to the allegations marched in Washington; other women responded by running for office — and won. Hill and Thomas supporters and detractors locally and nationwide made their cases known. Increasing numbers of sexual harassment charges were filed, and, ultimately, sexual harassment policy changed.

Nearly 15 years later, Thomas serves on the high court and Hill teaches at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The atmosphere in the recently remodeled OU Law Center is quiet. Within its halls, there’s little evidence of the swarm of attention the building once received, much less of Hill’s ever having been there. A search for her name on the Law Center Web site turns up two related pages — one stating she is no longer at OU and another citing a video, available in the Law Library.

A professorship created in Hill’s name is long gone. No room bears her name, nor is there a plaque or display recognizing the changes in law influenced by the hearings and testimony this former OU professor reluctantly made public. No statue. Those forms of recognition would be unusual for someone who was just a professor, according to the law school’s assistant dean for students, Stanley Evans.

Outside of mention in courses, Hill’s tangible presence on campus and particularly at the law school seems to have been shelved, literally — relegated to the libraries, where, as in the Law Center, a row of books speaks silent volumes on the hearings and their aftermath: transcripts, analyses, a collection of essays edited by Toni Morrison, David Brock’s recanting of his earlier smear job on Hill, and her own autobiography, “Speaking Truth to Power.”

In some ways, Hill’s disappearance from the OU campus echoes her own attempt to disappear from the spotlight and return to normal life in Norman after the hearings. Yet, her testimony and Thomas’ testimony, mutually exclusive and ultimately unresolved, struck a chord that failed to dissipate. It instead reverberated into multiple arenas charged with conflict and differing opinions — racism and sexual discrimination, the partisan trend in Supreme Court nominations, women’s activism. Just as the hearings failed to resolve who was telling the truth and what had happened, how those events completely played out in the legal world and national consciousness remains unsettled and divisive.

“It was an event that created a lot of emotion both ways,” said then OU law dean and current professor David Swank. “There were very vocal critics and there were some very vocal, loyal supporters.”


Hill became a household name in October 1991, but this story began months earlier, when Bush nominated Thomas to replace Marshall, the first and only black justice on the Supreme Court.

The nomination proved to be “pretty controversial,” Totenberg said. Bush and Thomas claimed the nomination had nothing to do with race, but the topic seemed unavoidable in that Thomas was replacing Marshall, a champion of civil rights, and both were black. Thomas’ conservative leanings made some wonder if he’d be best to fill those shoes. Whether Thomas ought to be confirmed became a publicly debated question when the story of Hill’s allegations broke prior to the confirmation vote, originally scheduled the Tuesday after her Norman press conference.

Judiciary Committee staff had contacted Hill among others early in September as part of an inquiry into Thomas’ term at the EEOC. All those contacted were asked about sexual harassment rumors, The Oklahoman reported, which Hill ultimately discussed with the committee, with three reservations, according to her autobiography: She did not want to testify publicly, she wanted an independent investigation and she wanted to be sure other women had reported similar behavior.

“I do not want the matter abandoned,” she wrote she had said to clarify her intentions. “What I want is for the committee to have the information.”

As part of that process, Totenberg learned — through a source she still refuses to reveal — of Hill’s charges and that they initially had not been pursued at all. Sen. Joseph Biden, committee chairman, was reluctant to investigate if Hill was unwilling to go public. That reluctance wasn’t his alone.

“When I was working on this story, and I was calling Democrats on the committee, … they were telling me that I should not really be bothering with this, that there was no quote ‘silver bullet’ here, this was no big deal,” Totenberg said. “And these were all liberal, Democratic, male senators to whom a charge of sexual harassment was not something they thought was a big deal.”

Finally, “only at the eleventh hour, with the first round of hearings over, did Biden finally succumb to pressure from some Democrats” to pursue Hill’s allegations, Totenberg wrote in the introduction to the published transcripts. Biden had Hill and Thomas interviewed by the FBI. Having gotten access to the information, Newsday broke the story over the wires Oct. 5 and Totenberg on the air Oct. 6. With media and public attention suddenly locked on, ignoring the allegations no longer seemed possible. Thomas’ confirmation vote was delayed to allow three days of testimony, and the nation tuned in to watch.


On Friday, Oct. 11, Biden brought the hearing to order at which Hill had been subpoenaed to appear, surprising Swank, and, according to him, Hill as well.

“That was the first that I had heard of it,” Swank said. “She had no intention of testifying until someone contacted her about it. I think she was surprised and I was surprised. It was not something she had planned to do.”

Over the course of the long weekend in Washington, the panel of 14 white men — and the nation, through live coverage on all three networks — heard Hill’s allegations that Thomas had repeatedly asked her out and talked about pornography while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and EEOC. To that, there was Thomas’ flat denial. The explicit nature of the testimony had families leaving the Senate Caucus Room, children in tow, The Oklahoman reported.

“The Republicans on the committee were absolutely loaded for bear; the Democrats were sort of wussy — they sort of seemed to be taken by surprise,” Totenberg said. “I think in fairness that everybody thought that the nomination would be withdrawn when (Hill) stepped up to the plate, had a public press conference, made it clear she was gonna go through with this. Every reporter I knew, and most (of) the people I talked to in the White House, thought the nomination would be withdrawn. And the White House council’s office … just dug its heels in and said, ‘No, we’re not going to withdraw the nomination; we think he’s been falsely accused and we’re going to see it through.’”

See it through they did. The hearings would play out, complete with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch suggesting Hill had gleaned the details of her testimony from “The Exorcist” and Thomas calling the process a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” After 30-plus hours, senators did the opposite of what Totenberg expected going in: On Oct. 15, they narrowly confirmed Thomas, 52-48. Then-Sen. David Boren was a swing vote on the issue. Currently OU’s president, he was one of 11 Senate Democrats who voted to confirm Thomas.

“If there’s substantial doubt, I believe you resolve that doubt in favor of the accused,” he said, according to The Oklahoman. The rest of America seemed to agree — polls indicated most people believed Thomas over Hill, despite her having passed a lie detector test the last day of the hearings. A year later, Hill would have more popular support than Thomas and The Oklahoman would report Boren had changed his mind on Thomas, although for reasons unrelated to the hearings.

Ultimately, this “three-act play,” as Totenberg called it in her introduction, yielded little consensus on who was telling the truth, what happened between them and whether it had mattered in the end. However, it did propel a self-described private person into the national spotlight.


Despite Hill’s prediction interest would fall off after the vote, as she wrote in her autobiography, it continued. To women activists, she became a symbol; to conservatives, the hearings amounted to a liberal plot, a “Frontline” documentary commented a year later. In 1993, Brock’s “The Real Anita Hill” cast her as a manipulator, who had always been obsessed with the issue of sexual harassment, ideas the writer recanted later in “Blinded by the Right.”

Local criticism came as well, and before the hearings even began, “My integrity has been called into question by people who have never spoken to me,” Hill said at the Norman press conference. Although she participated in speaking engagements following the hearings, she gave few interviews and declined to comment for this story. She offered her perspective in full when her autobiography was published in 1997.

“The event known as the Hill-Thomas hearing has been described variously as a watershed in American politics, a turning point in the awareness of sexual harassment, and a wake-up call for women,” she wrote. “For me it was a bane which I have worked hard to transform into a blessing for myself and others.”

As for Thomas, acquaintance and current OU law Dean Andrew Coats doubts the hearings still resonate. “I think probably those things go away. In the fullness of times, these things become less significant,” he said. However, Totenberg regrets that the hearings never resolved whether the harassment occurred, diminishing the credibility of both the Supreme Court and Thomas.

“Now, it’s 15 years later, lot of water under the bridge, perhaps Justice Thomas has recovered, both in his public reputation and in his own personal feelings, but I suspect that this is a scar that he will never completely recover from, in part because the judiciary committee did not proceed in a professional manner to investigate these charges,” she said.

“It would’ve stood a chance, I think, of being resolved properly if it had been done quietly and professionally, and it never was done professionally and God knows it wasn’t done quietly.”


Whether the events of fall 1991 are indeed becoming shelved in the public consciousness, conflict over them continues. Even at the OU law school, where Swank and Coats said the turmoil the nation plunged into at the time did not have a lasting effect, there is a disconnect.

Swank and administrators drew criticism for the very press conference Hill gave before heading to Washington. Some legislators believed connecting the university with the charges portrayed it in a bad light, The Oklahoman reported. Still today, the law school’s involvement is something Coats says shouldn’t have happened.

“While she was on our faculty here, it never was a law school issue,” he said. “I mean, it had to do with one person who had a relationship with another person, and it really … was not an issue in which the law school should’ve been involved at all — or the university.”

Swank, however, who stood beside Hill at the press conference, maintains that supporting her and hosting it was the right thing to do.

“I don’t think I’d do anything differently,” he said. “I think we did everything that was right at the time. I was very supportive of professor Hill. I think she was a very ethical person. …

“ … Any time a faculty member has a press conference, they have it here on the university campus, so why would we not do that? … The students knew her (and) wanted to be able to hear her. Why shouldn’t it be where they have the opportunity to do that?”

What went on those three days depends on whom you ask. “It was one of those things that was kind of a creature of its time,” Coats said, and Swank commented that had it been any other sexual harassment issue, had a Supreme Court nominee not been involved, media attention would not have been so galvanized.

To Totenberg, however, what happened in 1991 would be just as gripping, told today. “You have an allegation of sexual harassment by a nominee for the Supreme Court whose job just two years earlier was to enforce those very laws,” she said. “And it involved sex and very graphic descriptions and it involved two African-Americans, an accuser and an accused, and it was very — on his part, extremely heated rhetoric.”

When much still divides, what can be agreed on is this: Sexual harassment had been brought dramatically to the forefront of American life.


Sexual harassment was hardly a new topic in 1991. It had been prohibited in the workplace for almost 30 years when the Hill-Thomas hearings made it a household phrase.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment was classified as a form of gender discrimination. However, courts had difficulty visualizing it as discrimination before 1991, according to OU law professor and Oklahoma Gazette contributor Rick Tepker, who teaches employment discrimination in addition to classes on constitutional law and the First Amendment. Moreover, women who claimed to have been sexually harassed were often considered “whistle blowers,” said Dorscine Littles, OU human relations professor.

“Usually, anybody who made the charge ended up being demoted or fired or forced into leaving their job,” she explained. “So women were in a catch-22. If they reported the sexual harassment, it was going to continue and things were going to go downhill for them; if they didn’t report it, things were going to continue. So, most women just wanted it to stop — they didn’t want any kind of retribution against the sexual harasser in many cases. They just didn’t want to be in that environment.”

The effect of the Hill-Thomas hearings was immediate. Apart from sexual harassment, women angered by Hill’s treatment ran for office and women are on the Judiciary Committee, Totenberg said. In addition, there’s now a formal process for privately addressing allegations that might surface in a Supreme Court nominee’s background check. In terms of sexual harassment, the number of charges filed with the EEOC leapt and kept increasing through the Nineties.

That exposure marked a turning point within law, Tepker said. Only a month after the hearings, Bush signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which he previously threatened to veto. It included amendments to Title VII providing for additional remedies to those who had been discriminated against, including compensatory and punitive damages.

Some people called it the Anita Hill Civil Rights Act, Tepker said.

The impact in workplaces was indescribable, according to Littles. On campus in Norman and at every other university at which she had colleagues, sexual harassment training became a norm, providing employees understanding of what constituted discrimination and the process to file charges.

“All of that was made very clear after the hearings,” she said. “The attention had never been there. … The training before that was on racial diversity … and multiculturalism.”

But with that training came an unexpected consequence of teaching people to be better sexual harassers.

“They know how far they can go,” Littles said. “So people are made to feel uncomfortable, but they can’t accuse someone exactly. … So it’s still going on; it’s just not as raw, I guess you could say.”

That’s problematic when, according to Tepker, courts have since passed rulings increasing the difficulty for meritorious cases to prevail.


Set in concrete in front and behind the OU Law Center in Norman is a bit of well-meaning rhetoric: “To allow the rights of one person to be violated puts at risk the rights and liberties of all.” In light of the allegations one person — Hill — brought forward 15 years ago, and the fallout from those events, how effective the law is and will continue to be in protecting the rights of all employees from sexual harassment in some ways remains to be seen.

Despite legal and professional clarification about what sexual harassment is, some legal issues have yet to be resolved. To what extent employers can be held responsible for unintentionally discriminatory practices is still unclear since the amendments passed, Tepker said.

And, with the increase in cases and likewise increase in baseless charges (12,679 charges were filed with the EEOC in the 2005 fiscal year; almost half were found to have no reasonable cause) has come blowback from critics.

“You get these anecdotes about the 5-year-old kid who is found guilty of sexual harassment or the guy who tells the bad joke about the ‘Seinfeld’ episode at the water cooler,” Tepker said. “Sometimes the cases that actually become the subjects of lawsuits aren’t the really egregious, difficult sexual harassment cases. The law is an inefficient mechanism (in sorting those out).”

Still, Tepker, who has represented both management and complainants, said he believes the principle is under-enforced and difficult to prevail against. The Supreme Court has watered down how responsible employers can be held if employees do not file timely complaints, and the threshold of proof required to establish behavior as harassment has increased.

“The net result is that after the ’91 act — designed to improve remedies for wronged employees — the courts have manufactured a series of obstacles in the way of meritorious cases,” he said.

Tepker’s not optimistic about change for the better for the sake of complainants, either. Even among his students, there is little sympathy, he said, and that goes for liberals, conservatives, males and females. There is a sense that employers shouldn’t be held responsible for behavior outside their control.

“The real change, and it’s a positive one, has been in the training of supervisors and employees to avoid these issues,” Tepker said. “And I think that’s where you can’t underestimate Anita Hill’s impact and the impact of law.

“But if you’re asking me, you know, let’s look at the cases, do the cases really measure up, it’s a very mixed and confusing story.”

Oklahoma Gazette

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