Anita Hill Wants More Than an Apology

Thirty years after her groundbreaking testimony to Congress, Hill says gender violence is a public crisis.

Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

This October, it will be 30 years since Anita Faye Hill, a 35-year-old law professor from Lone Tree, Oklahoma, came forward to testify that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when the two worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite Hill’s searing testimony, which was met by derision and insult from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee and paralysis and ineptitude from the Democrats in charge (led by future president Joe Biden), Thomas would get confirmed to fill the seat left empty by retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, swinging the balance of the Supreme Court perilously rightward. But Hill’s testimony served as a kind of fulcrum, marking an enormous and uneasy turn in America’s recognition of gender inequity and injustice. It was the catalyst for a generation of American women — who had caught a glimpse in excruciatingly real time of how underrepresented they were in government and professional life — to move into electoral politics in unprecedented numbers.

It was also, of course, a turning point for Hill herself. Dogged for years by threats and insults, she would leave Oklahoma for Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has taught for more than 25 years. She would also become a kind of receiving dish for innumerable stories of harassment, assault, and sexualized abuse. It was the sheer number of these stories, and the way they shaped her view of gender, power, race, and violence, that led her to change the focus of her work to become more of an activist. This week, she is publishing Believing, a thoughtful volume in which she offers the story of how her own work was changed by her experiences within a system that degraded and demeaned her, alongside many other stories of those she’s heard from since.

You begin this book with your own professional reckoning, in the wake of your 1991 testimony, about whether you should try to “take back [your] pre-hearing life as a law professor” at the University of Oklahoma or start down a more activist path, one that had been thrust on you as soon as you told your story. Your recollections of this decision made me think about Toni Morrison’s famous observation that “the very serious function” of racism is as a distraction that “keeps you from doing your work.” I wanted to ask, do you ever think about that work from which you were ultimately distracted? Do you wonder what your career would have been had you not been harassed, or had you not decided to testify that you had been?
I don’t think it would have been as fulfilling as this is, because I do believe that fulfillment comes from struggling with things that you want to change. I could’ve easily done some things that I would’ve been very proud of. But I don’t think I could’ve done any work that I’m more proud of than the work that I’m doing now.

But because so many people know you starting at that moment at which your life’s work changed, can you describe what the alternate version might have been?
Well, one of the things I was toying with was going to medical school. I had wanted to be a scientist when I was growing up, but my adviser in college told me that he thought majoring in science was going to be too hard for me and that I should do something easier. Ultimately, I got a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, and then I went to law school … [laughs] something easier. But there was still something in me; I loved science, I was 35, and I thought I could get a medical degree and help poor people who needed medical care and weren’t getting it, maybe work in public health. Then 1991 happened. I knew that I wasn’t in any position, at that point, to undertake all the coursework I’d need to get into medical school. So I put that on the back burner.

But also, when I was 35, one of the things I was working toward getting into was developing international law regarding trades and artifacts. I thought, “Here’s something I would love to continue to do,” which was protecting properties that had been looted by countries and ended up in museums. It was about all the looting of Indigenous people, and I thought I could help restore some of the things that had been stolen from Native Americans. I always had some of this social-justice vision for my work; there was always part of me that wanted to do something to help people. But I never imagined this.

You mean the explicitly gendered element of what your work would be?
I had been teaching about discrimination, so it was part of my thinking, but I didn’t imagine the social-justice work that I would do being in that area. That’s why it was so ironic when it did happen. It became very clear to me after thinking about it that I did have something I could add around gender and race. Initially it was in the workplace, because that’s where my problem happened. But then I started hearing from all these people who were talking to me about everything: about what we called domestic violence at the time, intimate-partner violence now. They were talking to me about incest, about sexual assault and rape. They were connecting behaviors that I hadn’t yet come to understand were connected. I realized it was bigger than sexual harassment and that if you didn’t look at the whole of the problem, you weren’t going to be able to solve any of the aspects of the problem.

I was struck by the phrase you used in your writing about the enormity and breadth of these interconnected problems: “boiling the ocean.” There have been moments in my work, when I’ve written about harassment or power abuse, creating an opening for people to share their stories of pain or abuse with me — and there are so many stories, yet a tiny fraction of what you’ve heard over 30 years — and I also reach for an ocean metaphor to describe the perspective that hearing from all these people gives you. I’ve said it’s like dipping your head below the surface of the ocean and seeing the whole iceberg, catching a (slightly suffocating) glimpse of the immensity of the horror, not just the bits that are visible above the surface.
It is seeing the iceberg; it is. Because of the vastness but also because you are now seeing all the things that we were never meant to see, that were supposed to be submerged and secret, that people weren’t supposed to tell about, especially to strangers. I grew up in Oklahoma. And we just had the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And most people didn’t know about it. They don’t know about it because they weren’t meant to know about it, because people didn’t want either the responsibility of having to do something about it or they didn’t care enough about it to want people to know.

So now I know these things that I was never meant to know.

But maybe I was, in fact, meant to know these things. Maybe the world is meant to know about these things. Maybe if we are able to know how horrible people’s lives can be, the level and the range of it, maybe if people were able to tell the truth about their experiences, we’d have to consider what the world should do. It’s not just that we get this vision of how common these things are, it’s, “How did we not know it before?”

You write about how gender violence — the umbrella term you use to cover so many of this range of power abuses — isn’t just about the abuse, but the system that tells those who have been harmed that what they experienced wasn’t so bad.
People in power don’t want you to know how bad things are, because then they have the responsibility to fix it or stop doing it themselves. But the thing you’re referring to — telling people it’s “not so bad” — is the phrase Arlen Specter used to describe my situation. [During the 1991 hearings, the late Pennsylvania senator mischaracterized Hill’s answer to a question asked of her by Judiciary Chair Joe Biden, suggesting that her then-boss Clarence Thomas’s comments to her about women’s large breasts were the kind of thing “we” “use all the time” and thus “not too bad.”] To me, [Specter’s framing] was, Let’s not think of this as a systemic problem, because as a senator, I will then have the responsibility to acknowledge it: as I vote for who’s on the Supreme Court, as I propose legislation, as I vote on legislation that other people have proposed, as I see what’s going on with my colleagues in the Senate who are engaging in some of the same behavior. 

But the other part of what this language does is tell other people that they shouldn’t bother to bring these issues up, the silencing. It can come out in various ways. “That’s not so bad” can easily escalate to “Don’t tell anybody. You will get in trouble.” So Arlen Specter wasn’t just talking to me; he was talking to anybody else who might’ve come forward. When somebody in power says, “This is not so bad,” we assume that is the message of power: “This isn’t important enough for us to take any recognition of.”

Speaking of recognition, I’m curious, since you brought up Tulsa. Growing up in Oklahoma, did you know about the massacre there?
[Shakes head] I did not know. The first real conversation I had about it was with a student I taught, probably in 1984 or 1985, when I was in Tulsa [teaching law]. This was a kid who had done a paper on the Tulsa Massacre when he was in college in Wisconsin. So a white male student from Wisconsin had written this paper and people in Oklahoma didn’t know about it. I’d gone all of my life without knowing; in sixth grade, we had Oklahoma history and that wasn’t part of what we got. Then you start to ask yourself, What else aren’t they teaching us?

My brother went to the same schools that I did in elementary and high school, and after the centennial anniversary, he got a call from his history teacher, who was on his sickbed in a hospital. The history teacher, also a white male, called my brother to apologize for not having taught him about Tulsa. He said he didn’t know, he didn’t know, and he wanted to apologize for not knowing.

Instead of this person feeling defensive, he owned it, even though he really wasn’t supposed to know, either.

The same system that didn’t teach you or your brother also didn’t teach the teacher.
So when you come down to it, we can be hurt and offended and angry, and we rightfully are, but it’s the system that is in place that is keeping us from moving forward. It’s a system that is hiding the reality of our lives. You were saying that you hear all of these horrible stories. There are a lot of terrible stories, and in the book I wanted to include those stories, because I wanted to honor the people who had gone through those experiences, but I also want people to see the reality of it.

Your book is explicit about the interlocking forces of racism and misogyny and how you just can’t pull apart any of these biases. You also write about the harm done by our carceral system and policing — that purported solutions to gender violence are themselves part of the problem of gender violence. So how do you find a path forward when the solutions on the table — including policing and incarceration — are themselves wholly inseparable from the problem?
Well, first of all, if you reveal all that, and are open about it, what it does is keep us from pitting Black women’s freedom and safety against Black men’s. You make clear that the real core enemy is the system that devalues both of us, and the system is winning in that fight.

One of the things I hear very often from young women of color is, How do I come forward against a person who is abusing me if he’s a person of my own race and I will be accused of shaming the community, and putting someone in harm’s way via the police? I hear from young Black men who say, “I want to be a part of the movement to end violence against women.” Maybe it’s because of the people in their own family, maybe it’s violence that they have experienced themselves because of their gender or gender identity or sexual identity. The question really is how do you bring those two together and help them to understand that you fight both racism and patriarchy at the same time? Until we fix the criminal-justice system, we can’t expect anybody to feel good about participating in it. And that’s a heavy fix. But what we can do is to understand that the common enemy really is the criminal-justice system.

You’re describing all this arduous, complex work of changing whole systems. And I can’t help but think about how early in the book, you recall the period in which you’re weighing what to do with your professional life after the Thomas hearings. And you note that David Boren, the former Oklahoma senator who had voted to confirm Clarence Thomas after your testimony, got hired as the president of the University of Oklahoma, where you were teaching law. It hit me in the gut, because the contrast is so clear: your lack of surety about your path, your wrestling with your responsibility toward untangling biases. Meanwhile, the guys at the top — the ones who become the justices, and who run the hearings to confirm them, and who cast their votes for them — they keep getting jobs as our justices, our bosses, our presidents; they shape the laws and decide on protections for less powerful people and build the systems that you’re spending 30 years trying to dismantle and make more just.
Yes. They do. They get to lead things.

Do you ever experience a feeling of futility? And if not, how do you escape it?
You have to measure your success by how much you achieve, and how effective you can be, not just by how much [these powerful people] have achieved or how effective they are. Because maybe, in fact, you can neutralize the impact of the stuff that they are doing or not doing. I think what you’re saying is that, “Look, men get questioned, credibly questioned, about their behavior, and they still go on to be able to make decisions that affect people’s lives.”

But I can’t give up, in part because I don’t think I could live with myself if I just said, “This is ridiculous. Nothing’s going to change.” And I don’t have to give up, because I know things have changed. This is a 30-year journey. There is a temptation when you see the Me Too movement, when you think about the Kavanaugh hearing, to feel that nothing has really changed. But in fact, things have changed. Public discourse has changed tremendously. It’s not just that more women are running for office or that more complaints were filed by the EEOC; I think about the student movements that came about in the ’90s. I think about organizations for domestic workers, the restaurant industry, conversations we are having now that we never would’ve had 30 years ago. I think about how not just Larry Nassar’s behavior has been revealed, but Michigan State’s complicity with that behavior, how local law enforcement was complicit, how the FBI was complicit. All of this is coming out. It goes back to you sticking your head under the water and seeing how huge the iceberg is. This is all of the stuff that we weren’t supposed to know that we now know. The more we can reveal, the more we can be hopeful.

I agree, and that’s why I do the work that I do. But you mentioned some of the organizations that have come out of these revelations, and it’s hard not to consider Time’s Up, and what they were willing to do on behalf of Andrew Cuomo, a guy they considered an ally. Which brings me to Joe Biden and the kind of pressure that you were under during 2019 and 2020 — to accept the very belated apology of the man who mismanaged the hearings that changed your life and changed the world in long-term ways. That’s an area where people don’t have a lot of appetite for complexity. As a critic of Biden’s, I was repeatedly told by his supporters that “Anita Hill forgave him, and if that’s good enough for her, that’s good enough for me.” But the notion that you forgave him and that was the end of the story strikes me as very oversimplified, and you really lay that out in the book. And I’m grateful. Because people want a simple answer about a man they want to like. But that simplicity can forestall crucial analysis of power and responsibility, and it seems like you are determined to push that analysis further.
First of all, as I talk about in the book, my conclusion is that Joe Biden’s apology to me was an apology on this personal level: “Okay, I apologize to you,” without acknowledging the real harm that was done, not only to all of the people who had complaints who might’ve come forward, to the people who were just disappointed that our systems failed so spectacularly, but also the ongoing harm that was being done, because this became a model, an example of how our government reacts. That [the personal apology] is not enough when you’re the president of the United States. And I reserve the right to be able to say that. I didn’t really have to have an apology. But what I really need — what we all need, if you want this country to have confidence in its government — is a commitment that you’re going to fix this problem. You’re at least going to fix it for the Senate Judiciary Committee, but also fix it for the military; you need to fix it for our government offices, you need to lead big businesses to fixing the problem; you need to do more than tell students that students should stop the harassment; you need to deal with the leaders at universities. And this is what he can do now.

The fact that I’m talking to him through this book doesn’t mean that I think that apology is enough. It means, in fact, that it’s not enough. And there needs to be more and that he can do more.

And you think it’s within the purview of the president to make some of these changes?
It is a responsibility of the president to deal with issues that are this vast, this systemic, this harmful, that keep getting passed on from generation to generation and that fall on the most vulnerable people in our society. When I look at gender-based violence, I see the pervasiveness of it, the variety of the harm, how it’s damaging our institutions, including our military. Of course it’s the role of the president to be doing something about it. Yes, that is his job. And it’s time that we acknowledge that as voters as well.

When I think about what a president could do at this point, I quickly think of court reform. Do you think the Biden administration should be pushing to expand the Supreme Court?
That’s not my opinion. I worry when that happens, then the next person who comes along can pack the court with even more. It’s just a political arms race. So I don’t see that as a long-term solution. But I think what this administration should be doing is challenging the Supreme Court by pushing cases that will challenge the limitations that have been put on the Violence Against Women Act. That’s one of the things that needs to happen; there needs to be a legal strategy for going back to the original intent of the Violence Against Women Act, before it was altered in 2000 in the U.S. v. Morrison case. An investment in that act alone and a reinstatement of the federal government’s role in providing protection for women against gender-based violence really ought to be a priority.

And the president can do any number of things through policy. It’s hard for me to see change in the court today. But that doesn’t mean that because we can’t change the Supreme Court, we do nothing. We need a president who is willing to call out gender violence as a public crisis — not a personal problem. It’s not a private issue. This is a public crisis and it demands structural change. And we need to invest in that through almost every Cabinet-level appointment, to look inside each agency to see how they’re going to affirmatively address the issue. That’s what a president can do.

But that requires exactly the thing that you have commented that Biden has sometimes seemed to lack — the view of long-term institutional inequity and consequence over individual harm or individual responsibility, right?

It’s seeing the hearings in 1991 and understanding the messages they sent, and also the long-term impact of the appointment of the Supreme Court justice to a lifetime position. Because Clarence Thomas is making the laws on abortion, on voting rights, on gender violence, 30 years later.
Yeah. And the long-term impact is also the impression that it’s okay for a seat on the Supreme Court to be occupied by an individual who, if we had done a full investigation or had a fair hearing, might well have been found to have violated the very laws that he was put in office to enforce at the EEOC and the Department of Education. The fact is that the Senate Judiciary Committee, to this day, as far as I know, still doesn’t have any procedures in place for these investigations. So if tomorrow, there’s a Supreme Court nominee and accusations come, and there’s credible evidence, who knows if anybody would even be able to step up, because there’s no process for them to step up. Now that’s shameful.

But we do have a good example of how things could evolve. You talked about Time’s Up and this debacle with Governor Cuomo. But coming out of the Cuomo story is one bright spot: Letitia James really gave us something. The complaints of those employees were handled through an official inquiry that said, “Here’s what we looked at. This is how we looked at it. Here’s our conclusion. And this is what we think should happen. We did an investigation. We brought people in and got testimony that we heard from both sides. We did a thorough job, and we wrote a report.” So let’s don’t forget that.

If the Senate Judiciary Committee’s work has been this model of how things shouldn’t happen, then out of the Andrew Cuomo case will have come progress in the form of this other model of investigation. It’s not everything. It’s not the end. But it does do away with some of these lame “he said, she said” excuses for not moving forward or doing anything. Whatever side you were on, you had something that you could look at as evidence, facts, information to make a rational decision. I say all that to say I’m hopeful.

I am glad to hear it.
I have been thinking a lot about [the late activist and lawyer] Pauli Murray. She says, “Hope is a song in a weary throat.” And I’ve always described myself as hopeful. I guess what it comes down to is whether your emphasis is on the song or the weary throat. And mine is on the song. I may have a weary throat, but I also have a song.

Anita Hill Wants More Than an Apology