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Anita Hill Reflects on 20 Years Since Clarence Thomas Hearings

October 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Twenty years ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' Senate confirmation process sparked a national debate about sexual harassment when Anita Hill, his former special assistant, accused him of inappropriate behavior. Gwen Ifill and Hill discuss her new book, "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, it was 20 years ago this week that the Senate held confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. That’s when sexual harassment became the focus of a national debate.

The subject was raised by a young black law professor named Anita Hill. She had been an attorney adviser and special assistant to Thomas at two government agencies.

ANITA HILL, law professor: My working relationship became even more strained when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex. His conversations were very vivid. When I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thomas denied Hill’s allegations, then and now. In the end, he was confirmed by the narrowest margin for a high court pick in a century.

And now, 20 years later, Anita Hill is back with a new book, “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home.”

Gwen Ifill sat down with her recently at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Hill, thank you for meeting with us.

ANITA HILL: It’s my pleasure.

GWEN IFILL: It’s been 20 years since a lot of people ever thought of you, have seen you. What have you been doing in all that time?

ANITA HILL: Well, I have been doing in a large way what I was doing before the 20-year — the Thomas hearing.

I’m teaching. I have been teaching now since 1983. I’m writing. I do some public speaking. And I’m spending time with my friends and family and really enjoying life in many ways.

GWEN IFILL: You say in your book that you received 25,000 letters from people in the 20 years. Were they mostly positive or were they not?

ANITA HILL: Many of the letters were very, very supportive. And there’s a whole range of them.

And what I do like about them is the range. They come from all over the country. They come from all — people of all walks of life. They come from women and men. And, in fact, the trend is now that I’m getting more or a higher percentage of letters from men, and…

GWEN IFILL: Saying what?

ANITA HILL: Well, they say some things that are very supportive. They say — they tell me what the hearings meant to them in their lives.

And I am — especially very recently, since people are thinking about the 20th anniversary, I’m certainly hearing from women, who say what the hearing meant and what my testimony meant, and then what they have been able to do in their lives in response to it in terms of their own life situations.

GWEN IFILL: Did it change your life situation? Looking back on it 20 years now, would you do it again?

ANITA HILL: Yes to both those questions. Yes, I would do it again. And, yes, it changed my life. It changed my life in some internal ways, the things in terms of my thinking. But it also, I believe, changed what I do.

I have continued teaching. But, in fact, I am no longer teaching in a law school. I’m now teaching in a policy school at Brandeis University. The way I look at the law has changed. I do believe now that I look at law and inequality from a broader perspective.

GWEN IFILL: People look at you still and think of you as the poster girl, the poster woman for gender and race discussions, debates in our country. Is that what you want to be?

ANITA HILL: I have — often say to people that you really don’t get to decide your own legacy. I mean, what you do is, you try to be your own authentic self. And then people decide how they’re going to interpret that and what it means to them.

If I can mean to people — if I can symbolize the ability to pursue gender equality, racial equality, and to be truthful about our experiences, then, absolutely, that’s what I want to be.

GWEN IFILL: I look at your book “Reimagining Equality” and I thought, I think I know what this is about. And then I discover it’s really about finding home.

How do you make the connection between gender and racy equality and home?

ANITA HILL: Well, when you think about it, the place where we call home really decides for many of us our access to jobs. It decides for many people what kind of schools we’re going to go to, for our children.

It determines for a lot of people just whether or not they’re going to have access to good, healthy food. And we don’t think about many of those things in terms of what it means for equality. So what I try to do is to sort of get us to think about the whole, particularly in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, how essential it is to our access to opportunity, and think about equality as access to opportunity. And so much of that stems from where we call home.

GWEN IFILL: There’s a portion of this book, a good portion of it, which talks about your own proud Oklahoma roots, and how your family went in one generation, I think you put it, from being property to owning property.

How does that shape you?

ANITA HILL: The story of my grandparents, who homesteaded 80 acres in Arkansas, only to lose it, and they lost it for a number of factors, bad lending policies and practices, problems with the economy, a downturn in the economy. Racial violence was also a contributing factor.

But what I look — when I looked at their story of having made such gains in one single generation — my grandfather was born a slave and then had this 80-acre farm in Arkansas, and they lost it — I saw the gain as really access to – for — to the American dream.

And it’s a gain that I’m very proud of. But then I looked at the loss and all of the factors that contributed to it, and I realized that some parts of their story really were eerily reminiscent of the stories that I read in the newspaper today.

GWEN IFILL: You write in the book — and I want to quote it — you write that the 2008 election, that — when you witnessed the choice in the Democratic primary between a black man and a woman made you begin to — quote — “feel more at home in America than I had since 1991, when the public rejected the testimony of my life experience.”

Why? Why?

ANITA HILL: Well, because what I felt in 1991 was a rejection of myself, my life experience, and what had happened to me when I was a young woman just starting out on my first job.

When I looked at the primary election, what I saw was really, through the surrogates of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I saw an acceptance of people who I felt could identify with my life because of race, because of gender.

I thought, OK, this is, for me, a symbol of acceptance of me that I had lost a part of in 1991. But I will say this, that I have started to regain that feeling anyway. I have gotten thousands, 25,000, I estimate, of letters since those hearings. And what I have in those letters are messages from people who will — feel very passionate about equality and really do believe that this country can achieve equality in my lifetime.

And that’s critical. That’s something that helped really restore my sense of being at home in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Your mother, Irma Hill, would turn 100 years old on Oct. 16. What would she see about what’s become of her daughter and what’s become of the country that she sacrificed so much to be part of?

ANITA HILL: I work every day to live up to my mother’s model. She was a very proud woman. And she really prepared me to go off into the world as a proud daughter.

But it was a world that she really didn’t understand, because she had lived through years of segregation, through years of outright gender bias. Nevertheless, I think she was the most courageous woman I know, to be able to send her daughter out with the expectation that she would do well.

And I think she would see — I mean, when she saw me, she saw a pride. I mean, she was very proud of me. And I worked to make her proud, even though she’s no longer with me. That is the standard that I apply in what I do.

GWEN IFILL: And she was the first person to teach you about home.

The book is “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home.” And the author is Anita Hill.

Thank you so much for joining us.

ANITA HILL: Thank you for having me.