As the documentary “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” opens in Boston, it’s a good time to think about the legacy of Anita Hill’s explosive testimony about Clarence Thomas in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. Some of us can still close our eyes and see the slight, dignified young African-American woman quietly facing down an attack squad of incredulous white male senators. The film seems likely to have a profound effect on young people who don’t remember those hearings, and who had no idea that, once upon a time, male bosses could (and did) pressure their female subordinates for sex with impunity.
Ffew people realize how much change cascaded from Hill’s testimony — or how fully her testimony has since been vindicated. Let’s review. In 1991, after President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, Hill testified that in 1981, when she was a 25-year-old lawyer working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her then-boss and EEOC director Thomas regularly talked to her graphically about sex. She said he gave lurid details about the pornography he watched, discussed his sexual prowess, and pressured her to have sex with him.
If true, Hill’s allegations meant that Thomas was harassing her during the very years that he had reversed the EEOC’s position on the first sexual harassment lawsuit ever to reach the Supreme Court, Meritor Savings Bank v. Mechelle Vinson. Under President Jimmy Carter, the EEOC had issued guidelines saying when a boss pressured an employee for sex, the company was violating her right to equal employment under the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII. But when Clarence Thomas came in during a Republican presidency, the EEOC switched sides in Meritor, arguing for the employer instead of the woman harassed. In 1986, in a landmark decision in Meritor, the Rehnquist Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that “sexual harassment” did indeed violate women’s rights.
But it took Anita Hill’s testimony about Thomas to alert the American people to this new workplace offense, “sexual harassment.” Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, albeit by the smallest margin in Court history. But Hill’s testimony — and the national backlash about the disrespectful way senators had treated her — set off a series of social, political, and legal changes. One month after Thomas’s confirmation, Congress strengthened the Civil Rights Act, enabling those who charged sex discrimination to seek jury trials and punitive cash damages. That year, the EEOC saw a sharp spike in sexual harassment charges filed; those charges climbed for nearly a decade, peaking at 15,836 in 2000.
Just as important, powerful men were put on notice that they would be held accountable for their behavior toward women. Florence Graves’s Washington Post investigation of Sen. Bob Packwood revealed his sexual misconduct and abuse of power against women in his employ, leading to a Senate Ethics Committee investigation and his forced resignation. Soon after, Congress passed the landmark Government Accountability Act, making Congress subject to the same discrimination laws as the rest of the nation.
But was Anita Hill telling the truth? Was the dispute just a “he said/she said” encounter that can never be settled? Three crucial pieces of evidence have emerged. First, the Senate Judiciary Committee had subpoenaed another woman, Angela Wright, with allegations similar to Hill’s and with a witness who could confirm Wright’s stories — which would have strongly suggested that Thomas was lying under oath. However, Graves’s reporting confirmed that a bipartisan group of the committee’s senators had privately agreed that they did not want Wright to testify, and dismissed her without ever calling her. Second, Sukari Hardnett, another former EEOC employee, had written the committee saying she had quit her job because of the sexual way in which Thomas interviewed young, attractive black women seeking EEOC jobs. Hardnett was never called to testify. Third, the Bush administration unexpectedly had Thomas sworn in nine days early — the very day that three Washington Post reporters showed their editor evidence that Thomas had rented a great deal of pornography from a video store. But because Thomas had already been sworn in, the Post dropped the story. Clarence Thomas has remained a reliable Court vote for narrowing the scope of sexual harassment law ever since.
Meanwhile, Anita Hill’s eight hours of courageous testimony has done far more than simply inform the country about a potential Supreme Court Justice’s character. Yes, sexual harassment continues to be a scourge for working women; in each year since 2000, the EEOC has received more than 11,000 new charges; research reveals that, as with sexual assault, far more women suffer this offense than ever report it. But today we have a common language — and a set of laws — that help us fight against this encroachment on women’s economic freedom. Hill’s unsought moment of celebrity has helped working women press forward toward equal footing with men in the workplace.