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April 8, 2016

Anita Hill’s legacy continues in new HBO movie

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Essential question

Why is it difficult to speak up for your rights, especially in the face of authority?


Twenty-five-years ago, Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment she said she experienced from then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

A new HBO film, “Confirmation,” starring Kerry Washington as Hill, dramatizes the high-profile debate that gained national attention and Senate hearings held late into the night.

In 1991, Hill challenged Thomas’ nomination by President George H.W. Bush on grounds that he had sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The hearings were the first of their kind.

Sexual harassment had received little public attention up to this point and the confirmation hearings brought the issue into the national spotlight. Twenty million Americans watched the hearings on television. Thomas called it a “high tech lynching.”

“I would do it again,” Hill said, despite the barrage of criticism she received from politicians and the public during and years after her Senate testimony. Other members of the public stood in support of Hill.

The Democratically-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a floor vote on Thomas’ confirmation after it had approved him on a party line vote in order to hold additional hearings. Thomas was eventually confirmed by a narrow majority of 52 to 48.

Hill went on to become a law professor at Brandeis University and advocate for women’s rights. She noted the importance of sharing this story, especially with young people given that women and men still frequently face powerful resistance to sexual harassment and assault claims.

“I have to credit some very, very brave young women and men for taking this on, on college campuses,” Hill said.


Key terms

Sexual harassment — harassment in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks

confirmation hearing — meetings held by the Senate to gather information about candidates for federal office nominated by the president of the United States

party line vote — a vote in which a substantial majority of members of a political party vote the same way

Warm up questions (before watching the video)
  1. Who is Anita Hill?
  2. What do you know about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas?
  3. How are Supreme Court justices chosen?
Critical thinking questions (after watching the video)
  1. Why was Anita Hill’s testimony notable at the time of the hearings and today?
  2. Why do you think Hill received so much backlash for her sexual harassment claims against Thomas?
  3. Why does sexual harassment continue to be a frequent topic seen in the news today?

Extension activity: High school students may want to read and comment on Gwen Ifill’s column: Gwen’s Take: shocker then, shocker now for a primary source perspective on the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas.

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