Anita Hill. Anita, still. The woman who became a crusader against sexual harassment, a term that was a firebomb in 1991, the year she – and it – became famous.
She dressed herself immaculately, took her seat politely, and made sure to speak clearly, as she delivered her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee: Clarence Thomas, the man they were about to appoint to the United States Supreme Court was the same man, she said, who had once called her into his office to explain that he enjoyed watching pornographic films featuring an actor named Long Dong Silver.
The same man who talked repeatedly about the size of women’s chests, and his own prowess, and who asked her on dates even though she was his underling and had said she wasn’t interested. He was also the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the highest federal office in charge of overseeing issues related to workplace discrimination.
He denied all of her allegations in his own testimony. The nation watched the drama unfold on television screens. The nation grappled with the shifting dynamics of gender and power in offices – with how to talk about it and how to ignore it. Now, there’s an HBO film coming out, “Confirmation,” premiering Saturday, dragging us back to the flash point in time at which culture became either too politically correct, or incrementally more equal, depending on where one stood.
It’s not true that the Hill hearings were the first time the country publicly addressed the issue of women’s treatment in the workforce. The issue had been addressed in the 19th century, when an 1887 report on “women wage-workers” declared that household service “has become synonymous with the worst degradation that comes to a woman,” because male employers so commonly assaulted their maids. It had more recently been addressed in the mid-1970s, when a Cornell lecturer first coined the term “sexual harassment.”
Lin Farley, the lecturer, had been hired to teach a field study course for aspiring female social workers. She encouraged students to share their previous work experiences, and without prompt, nearly every student talked about male colleagues: “My boss kept hitting on me, and he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” they said. Many of them had ended up quitting these jobs.
Farley left the session knowing she wanted to do more research, “but I felt that in order to do that, it had to have a name,” she says. She eventually came up with “sexual harassment,” a phrase she felt clarified that the attention wasn’t flirtation, it was unwelcome and insidious. She was thrilled when the New York Times ran an article about her efforts, even if it did run it in the lifestyle section of the paper next to the articles, “Children play homemade musical instruments” and “Grouse now being imported from Scandinavia.”
What was true about Anita Hill was that the Thomas confirmation hearings brought the issue onto the front page. The hearings expanded common understanding of harassment. Harassment wasn’t just a man physically forcing himself on a woman, as it had been in the early part of the 20th century. It wasn’t just a man pinching a woman’s behind or demanding a quid-pro-quo sex in exchange for keeping employment, as Farley’s students had described. Sexual harassment had to be only about an office culture in which a subordinate party was treated differently, sexually, because of his or her gender. It was something that could happen casually. It was something women could be blamed for, or shamed for – Can’t she lighten up? – and it could happen entirely in secret.
“What incidents occurred specifically in his office?” asked Sen. Joe Biden as an all-white, all-male panel questioned African-American Hill.
“The incident with the Coke can,” replied Hill, who had worked for Thomas a decade prior and was presently a law professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“Describe it once again for me, please?”
“The incident involved going to his desk, looking at this can, and saying ‘Who put a pubic hair on my Coke?’ “
“Was anyone else in his office at the time?” Biden asked.
“No,” she said.
But if it was so bad, another senator demanded, then why hadn’t Hill stopped it? “How could you allow this reprehensible behavior to go on?”
Women who were watching knew that predators reserved their most discomfiting behavior for times when there were no witnesses. It would have surprised them if Thomas had gathered several other office workers to talk about his Coke can. And why was Hill supposed to be responsible for stopping the alleged behavior of the man who outranked her and was responsible for her livelihood? How? With a gag? A stun gun? By quitting her job and leaving without a reference? By publicly accusing the man who was himself supposed to be the buck-stopper for sexual harassment suits?
Without Anita Hill, theorists may not now be talking about “microagressions” or “victim blaming,” currently terms in conversations about gender that acknowledge the subtleties and complexities within the treatment of women. The hearings formed a generation of feminists and caused good men to awaken to the possibilities of what bad men could be doing behind closed doors.
“Those hearings were a center point,” says Rebecca Traister, a feminist writer and scholar whose most recent book includes an interview with Hill, now a professor at Brandeis. “A switch was flipped for the country, even if it wasn’t immediately discernable.”
Traister watched the hearings as a high school student spending the week at her grandparents’ farm in Maine. Her grandparents were conservative Republicans and assumed Hill was lying; Traister wondered if there was something wrong with her for finding the story credible. The hearings, she says, “formed the foundation of my beliefs.”
Terry O’Neill watched them as a young professor in Louisiana, and saw her male colleagues laugh that no men at their university had ever done what Thomas was accused of doing – while her small cadre of female colleagues knew that men had, and still did. In 2009, O’Neill became the president of the National Organization for Women.
Historians have pointed out that the most visible outgrowths of the Hill hearings were legislative. Immediately following them, Congress passed a law that strengthened harassment victims’ rights to sue for damages, and President George H.W. Bush, who had rejected a similar bill the year prior to Hill’s testimony, signed it into law. The next year, 1992, was declared “The Year of the Woman,” because the number congresswomen had increased by 24, and female senators had risen from two to six. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., decided to run for office specifically because she’d been galvanized by senators’ treatment of Hill during the hearings.
And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the same agency Hill and Thomas had worked for and which tracked federal reports of sexual harassment, received 6,126 claims the year before Hill testified, and 10,578 the year after. Mandatory workforce trainings were instituted. Consciousness was raised.
Of course, the other half of the Anita Hill hearings was that she lost. Or she didn’t lose, rather, since she was never on trial – but Clarence Thomas was approved to the Supreme Court.
It wouldn’t happen like that today. Today, there would be a Twitter campaign and a hashtag – #IBelieveAnita – and a parade of PhDs to talk about why victims don’t always come forward. And there would be women on the panel, including Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was elected in the year of the woman.
There would still be debates, though. There would still be competing hashtags – #ShesLying – and we would still be talking about it, scrambling toward notions of equality that are forever developing, forever out of reach. Anita, still, until the end of time.

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