How Anita Hill Changed History by Rachel Lee Perez

I can find no better way to honor Women’s History Month than to discuss an incredible woman in History whose story continues to open the conversation of sexual harassment and the double standards that women continue to face in the workplace to this day.

Anita Hill was thrust into the spotlight in 1991 when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee with accusations that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, while in his capacity as her manager at both the United States Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had sexually harassed her.

This event changed History. Before Anita Hill’s testimony, about 7,000 sexual harassment cases were filed in the United States per year. In the years following her testimony, this number would nearly triple! But at the time of her testimony, she was not considered by many to be a hero. In fact, her testimony was torn apart and many refused to believe her story.

Who Is Anita Hill?

Anita Faye Hill was born on July 30, 1965 in Lone Tree, Oklahoma as the youngest of thirteen children. She was a brilliant, straight-A student. She received her Bachelor’s Degree with honors and then went on to study at Yale Law School where she received her Juris Doctorate with honors.

While working as an associate with a private law firm, Hill was introduced to Clarence Thomas who encouraged her to come work for him as his assistant in his newly appointed position of Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Approximately a year later when Thomas became the chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Hill became his assistant there. She would only work as his subordinate for about two years. She would continue to become a law professor eventually lecturing at the University of Oklahoma College of Law where she taught contract law.

She would become the first tenured African American professor at this university. And it was here that she was working at the time of the Supreme Court Justice Confirmation eight years later.

Background on Supreme Court Justice Nominations and Confirmations

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution gives the president the power to nominate justices to the Supreme Court. Accompanying this nomination is a full background check conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) which includes interviews with the nominee’s friends, family, and colleagues. Following this investigation, the nominee is interviewed before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is a standing committee composed of several U.S. Senators. After this interview, a majority vote must be reached for the nominee to be confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

In July of 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court to replace Thurgood Marshall. Prior to Thomas’ nomination, he had served as Assistant Attorney General in Missouri, worked as a legislative assistant to a US Senator, became the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education, and later became the chairman of the EEOC.

Anita Hill, who had worked with Clarence Thomas at both the Department of Education and the EEOC, fully expected to receive a call from the FBI simply because she had worked with him in the past and this was part of the typical vetting process. It was during that phone call that she was specifically asked, “We understand that you experienced sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas.” Believing that her statement would remain confidential and believing that she would be but one of several other women that would speak up and allege the same, she responded honestly to the question and told them that she had indeed been sexually harassed by Thomas in the course of her employment.

This FBI interview, however, would not remain confidential. Rather, it would be leaked to the press. The Senate Judiciary Committee had already finished Thomas’ confirmation hearings at this point and was currently in the process of debating the nomination when this FBI interview was leaked, and Hill was called to testify. Reopening a confirmation hearing after it had already been concluded was not typical; this was only the third time in History that this had ever happened.

Anita Hill Did Not “Come Forward”

It must be understood that Anita Hill did not “come forward”. She did not see that Clarence Thomas was going to become a Supreme Court Justice and then decided to speak up. She was interviewed by the FBI in which she provided a truthful statement. And when this information was leaked, she was then subpoenaed to testify at the confirmation hearing.

The most common misconception about this incident in History is that she heard Thomas had been nominated and then she all the sudden picked up the phone and said, “I want to make a public complaint.” That is simply not true. Anita Hill did not have a choice. She was called to testify. Her only other option - her only other choice - would have been to lie. And out of bravery, she did not do that.

In 1991, the phrase “sexual harassment” was largely unknown and certainly misunderstood. It was not until 1977 with three Supreme Court cases that sexual discrimination and workplace sexual harassment was ruled illegal. Even though a 1976 survey revealed that 80% of people said they had been sexually harassed in the workplace, “sexual harassment” still was not a term that many people were familiar with in the following years. So, when Anita Hill testified about her sexual harassment experiences, many people did not take her seriously.

Anita Hill’s Allegations

Hill said that only a few months into their professional relationship, Thomas began asking her out incessantly. Each time, she declined. She said he would have extremely uncomfortable and graphic conversations with her in which he would talk about the kind of pornography that he watched, his own anatomy, and his sexual preferences. She said on one particular occasion, he was sitting at his desk looking at a Coke can in front of him and asked, “Who has put public hair on my Coke?” It became so bad that Hill was hospitalized in 1983 for work stress-related issues.

Anita Hill was Attacked by the Senate Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee was made up entirely of middle-aged white males. Hill was criticized by the Senate Judiciary Committee for several reasons, one being why she would follow Thomas to a second job after he had sexually harassed her. Her answer to this question was simple. At that particular time, the sexual advances had stopped. Additionally, the EEOC was a huge opportunity for her. Believing that the sexual advances had come to an end and seeing an amazing career opportunity ahead of her, she chose to continue working with Thomas.

She was questioned by the Senators why she had not come forward with these allegations earlier, why she was so offended by sexual comments Thomas had made when he had never actually physically sexually assaulted her nor explicitly asked her to view the pornographic films that he regularly talked about, or even what she had to gain from testifying. Hill responded,

“I have nothing to gain. No one has promised me anything. I have nothing to gain here. This has been disruptive of my life and I have taken a number of personal risks. I have been threatened and I have not gained anything except knowing that I came forward and did what I felt that I had an obligation to do and that was to tell the truth.”

It became an unfortunate case of placing the victim on trial. This was supposed to be a judgement of Clarence Thomas’ character. But instead, it was Hill and her character that was placed on trial. Even though Hill had corroborating witnesses and had passed a polygraph test, her character was tarnished.

Clarence Thomas’ Response to the Allegations

Clarence Thomas would deny all allegations. In response to Hill’s testimony, he said,

“This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a Black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity Black who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

It was an uncomfortable hearing that neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted to have. This all-white committee did not want to be perceived as attempting to keep an African American from reaching a position in the highest court.

Within the Black community, many were upset with Anita Hill. Given the history of incarceration, over-policing, and slavery in the United States, Hill’s testimony felt like she was turning her back on the Black community. Something Hill would later say about this racial and gender disparity was that Clarence Thomas “had a race; she had a gender.”

The committee did not challenge Thomas.

They did not call the other witnesses that had testimony regarding his sexual behavior. In fact, there were three other women that all made similar complaints about Thomas. Not one of these other women was called to testify and corroborate Hill’s experiences.

Anita Hill’s Legacy

This event changed Anita Hill’s life forever. She hoped to return to a normal life when she returned home to Oklahoma to continue teaching law but that was not possible. She was followed by the press, accused in public of being a liar, and threatened. Republicans in her state tried to get the school to fire her even though she was tenured. After five years of this, Hill resigned.

Intentionally or not, Anita Hill inspired women. Just a year after Hill’s testimony, the EEOC had a 50% increase in complaints filed. The year following Hill’s testimony became known as the Year of the Woman. In 1992, twenty-four women were elected to the House of Representatives and four women were elected to the Senate! The year after that, California became the first State to be represented in the Senate by two women.

Nowadays, Hill works in Civil Rights and Employment Law. She specializes in Social Policy, Women’s Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She regularly speaks on gender and race at various events and television programs and has published two books.

In her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she was asked, “Had you not been contacted, would you not have come forward?” Her response was, “I cannot say that I would have.” In her own words, she was not “raising a legal claim”; she was “informing about conduct”. She just cared about doing what was right. And she cared about her work and about her students. She wanted to be able to show her students that you should always have the bravery to do what is right. She inspired many women for decades following her testimony and will continue to inspire women for generations to come.

About The Author

Rachel Lee Perez is a two-time published author, paralegal, ballet instructor, content editor, and podcaster. As co-host of the Hashtag History podcast, she releases weekly episodes about History’s greatest stories of controversy, conspiracy, and corruption. Hashtag History can be found on all major podcast platforms and on their website here:

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