Alternative Insight

The Legacy of Anita Hill

Former Vice-President Joseph Biden's entry into the race for a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election brought back reminders of the Clarence Thomas hearing, at which Biden presided, and prompted the voice of Anita Hill to be heard again. That voice cannot be understood without knowing the Anita Hill voice that changed the hearings.


In the Senate hearings for Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, the Democratic Party leaders sensed they could not prevent Thomas from becoming a Supreme Court Associate Justice and tried to prevent his nomination by exposing his moral lapses. Anita Hill became a catalyst for the Democrats arguments against Thomas. To those allied with feminist causes, Anita Hill, who had no previous experiences with feminist or progressive activities, emerged as a heroine. To those who wanted racism and sexism to be approached with an eye to solutions rather than an ear for entertainment, and also found it reprehensible that two African American personalities were pitted against one another in a political game. Anita Hill's salacious testimony resulted in character assassination of Clarence Thomas, did not prevent his selection to be a Supreme Court Justice, degraded the hearing process for Supreme Court judges, and reduced respect for the liberal wing of the Democrat party.

A short review of the hearings
President George Bush tried to change the 1991 Supreme Court appearance by nominating Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court Justice seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall. Whereas, Marshall had been an African-American leader who promoted causes for African-Americans, Clarence Thomas was an African-American leader who opposed affirmative action and other civil rights. President Bush may have stated that he nominated Thomas on his merits and not because he was an African-American, but he intimidated those who could not support an African-American who opposed African-American causes .

After the Senate Committee reviewed Thomas' nomination and voted 7-7, a neutral-recommendation, the Democrats felt they needed more susbstance to prevent the nomination. Awareness that critical information concerning the character of the nominee had been bypassed by the FBI and was now available to the committee alerted the Democrats to postpone the vote. Realizing that written comments were not sufficient and only a witness could provide legal evidence, those against Judge Thomas' appointment managed to pressure a reluctant Anita Hill to come forward in person and present her testimony regarding Thomas' character. She had been told that "Judge Thomas would withdraw his nomination after he learned she was prepared to testify," and was led to believe that she could stop the nomination without going public. This was not to be the case.

And what was this testimony? Although highlighted as a case of sexual harassment, Anita Hill intended her revelations to only be an examination of Judge Thomas' character. In an interview with Brian Lamb on C-Span's Booknotes, November 23, 1998, Ms. Hill stated:

..when I went to Washington, what I thought I was doing was providing information about the character and fitness of the individual. I did not see my role as going to Washington, DC, to file a complaint about sexual harassment. And I think the-- tables were turned on me and it became, "Unless she can support her claim of sexual harassment, then we cannot recognize what she has to say," and it put a--really an improper burden on me. And the standard really should have been whether or not I had credible evidence that went to the character and fitness of this particular nominee. And really as--when I provided that credible evidence, as long as it went to the character and fitness and long as it was relevant, I maintained that whether it came to the level of a complaint--a legal complaint for sexual harassment--really was not the issue. The issue was the character and fitness of this individual for this particular office.

Professor Hill also alleged that Clarence Thomas had invited her to go out with him socially and had discussed sex in a vivid manner. However, he had not used his superior position to gain advantage, only embarrassing, disturbing her, and showing her that he had a weakness for pornography.

Considering (1) that the suggested behavior occurred almost 10 years before the Hearing, (2) that the Committee had no evidence to show a consistent repeat behavior (one witness, Ms. Angela Wright stated she had also received similar remarks from Thomas, but was not called by the Committee), (3) that Anita Hill had no witnesses to any of the conversations, and (4) that the Committee knew fellow workers in Judge Thomas' office would testify on his behalf and refute Anita Hill's testimony (As one of many examples, Diane Holt, Judge Thomas' secretary during Anita Hill's employment testified: "At no time did Professor Hill intimate, not even in the most subtle of ways, that Judge Thomas was asking her out or subjecting her to the crude, abusive conversations that have been described. Nor did I ever discern any discomfort, when professor Hill was in Judge Thomas' presence."), how could the committee hope to prove her charges? And if they couldn't prove her charges, why did they engage in this type of strategy to defeat the nomination?

Anita Hill's credibility, and three persons, all of whom were notoriously against Thomas, and who claimed Anita Hill had mentioned the charges to them, provided the evidence available to the Committee. Although her testimony appeared to be trustworthy, it was reduced to a "he said/she said" confrontation and, due to Anita Hill's performance, created obvious doubts.

(1) Despite his alleged behavior, Professor Hill followed Clarence Thomas from the U.S. Department of Education to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EOEC).
(2) She continued working with Judge Thomas rather than obtaining another position.
(3) She claimed that Clarence Thomas only spoke in a lewd manner behind closed doors, and offered privacy as the reason no one else was party to his behavior. Other office workers testified that Clarence Thomas never closed his doors and always made certain that the door was open when he was with someone.

Judge Clarence Thomas received Senate approval to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by the slim vote of 52-48. Senators Chuck Robb, Alan Dixon, David Boren, and Richard Shelby, who became a Republican, were the only Democrats who voted for the nomination.

Who is Anita Hill?
Efforts had been made to portray
Anita Hill as a liberal thinking, civil rights activist concerned with feminist issues. At the time of the hearings, this characterization did not appear to be accurate. Not until years after the 1991 hearings, and after receiving prompting and support from feminist groups, did Professor Hill become involved in feminist issues and activist causes.

After graduating from Yale University in 1980, Anita Hill worked for the law firm of Ward, Hardraker, and Ross. Although employment records have not been examined, associates at the firm indicated she had been requested to leave after 11 months. She then joined the ultra-conservative, affirmative action denying, Judge Clarence Thomas, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, at the Department of Education and followed him to the EOEC. In the spring of 1983, she received an an opportunity to teach at Oral Roberts University. In Professor Hill's words: "I participated in a seminar -- taught an afternoon session and seminar at Oral Roberts University. The dean of the university saw me teaching and inquired as to whether I would be interested in further pursuing a career in teaching, beginning at Oral Roberts University." Although claiming she wanted to pursue Civil Rights law, Anita Hill taught at an Evangelist university that had close association with religious right causes and issues. In 1987 she joined the faculty at Oklahoma University, teaching commercial law,and on March 9, 1995, announced her resignation from that university. After taking an unpaid leave during which she authored a book, Race, Gender, and Power in America, co-edited with Emma Coleman Jordan, she resumed her teaching post in September of the same year.

After again leaving the University of Oklahoma at the end of the fall 1996 semester, Anita Hill remained in Norman, Oklahoma except for temporary positions at the University of California-Berkeley and Brandeis, stints on Court TV and paid public speaking appearances. In 1998 her account of the events before, during, and after the Thomas hearing, Speaking Truth to Power, was published. She later became a professor of law, social policy, and women's studies at Brandeis University.

Professor Anita Hill may have refined her social philosophy and viewpoints over the years. However, in 1991, during the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings, her career direction was sketchy, her viewpoints were neither clarified nor with expression for progressive causes, and her persona undefined.

The Legacy of Anita Hill
in a by-product of the hearings, women rallied to Anita Hill and considered her willingness to express herself openly on delicate issues as a courageous effort. According to California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Hill's experience galvanized a record number of women (170) to run for Congress in the 1992 elections, resulting in four new women being elected to the U.S. Senate and a 68 percent increase - from 28 to 47 - in women in the House of Representatives. Her appearance before the Committee placed sexual harassment on the national agenda. The EOEC reported that 10,522 people filed sexual harassment complaints in 1992, 50% more than in 1991. In addition, following the Thomas hearings, the Senate enacted into law a previously vetoed civil rights bill that allows sexual harassment victims to "sue for damages in the amount of up to $300,000 per complaint."

Taken in proper context, these meaningful events were due to groups taking advantage of the hearing testimony and, as described previously, not due to Anita Hill; who only gave testimony in an effort to determine Clarence Thomas' character and not to argue workplace harrassment. No testimony indicated that the prospective Associate Justice forced himself on his employee, or used his position for special demands. Anita Hill, although she could have fouind another position, remained in Thomas' employ and without recrimination. Several years passed before Anita Hill used her unintentionally acquired fame to assume a role as a spokesperson for women rights.

From another perspective, the Senate Committee's failure to gather all the facts and hold closed hearings before going public angered many people. The losing Democrat strategy made a spectacle of the Senate and uselessly defamed the characters of Judge Thomas and Professor Hill. Instead of successfully attacking Thomas' lack of qualifications -- having never argued a case in court and having promoted a biased and reactionary social agenda -- the Democrats focused on whether he had engaged in pornography and made vulgar remarks. A proper strategy that attacked Thomas' qualifications might have defeated him. Instead, his record became superfluous and his moral character became all important. Committee Chairman, Democrat Biden, verified the over-riding importance of Thomas' moral character in the confirmation, when he stated; "Any doubt (of Hill's testimony) should be resolved in favor of Judge Thomas."

The counterproductive strategy of the Democratic Party disturbed many of those camped on its political edge. Although not proven to be due to the hearings, the political climate of the 1990's noted an enhanced drift towards the political center, skepticism of liberal efforts, and the feeling that women's causes had become insular and one-sided. These, and the awkward selection of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice, are other principal legacies of Professor Anita Hill's testimony at the Senate hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas' election to the Supreme Court. Is Anita Hill continuing that legacy with confrontational attacks on the character of presidential hopeful, former Vice-President Joseph Biden? Will the sinister and ugly details of a 1991 Senate hearing be used to influence the choice of a Democratic Party nominee in the 2020 presidential election?

august 1, 2001
updated April, 25, 2019