Speaking Truth to Powerby Anita Hill
When Anita Hill was ten, she was picking cotton in rural Oklahoma. One of thirteen children, she grew up amidst a loving family who ran a small farm. By the time she was twenty-five, she was a graduate of Yale Law School and less than ten years later, she was sitting in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the subject of some of the most intense scrutiny and horrible vilification that anyone has experienced in modern times. She never wavered from her path.
Only now do we meet that young farm girl, and the woman she is todayone of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history. Second-guessed by politicians on both sides of the fence, indicted by the media before she'd even had the chance to testify, Anita Hill nonetheless stood firm in a battle she never asked for. Now, after six years of hearing everyone else tell her story (often erroneously, frequently in slanderous terms), she has decided to tell it herself.
During the Senate hearings, the press gave four times as much column space and air time to Clarence Thomas and his supporters as it did to Anita Hill and hers. Now it's her turn to be heard.
Ironically, Hill's uptight style helps make her case -- it's easy to see how someone so reserved could be devastated by sexual comments that might not faze a more freewheeling type. During the hearings, Clarence Thomas' supporters tried to paint Hill as a sexually voracious, spurned woman, but such a woman could never have written this utterly sexless book. She describes the shame of relating Thomas' remark, "Who put a pubic hair on my Coke?" to the congressional committee: "At once, I was twenty-five years old again," she writes. "By that time I had had several jobs and worked with many different people, but never before had anyone ever uttered such an absurdly vulgar and juvenile comment to me. Disgusted and shocked, I could only shake my head and leave the office. I heard him laughing as he closed the door."
The book's greatest contribution is to help those of us who always instinctively believed Hill to understand why she waited 10 years to bring her charges against Thomas and why she called him a dozen times during those years. She's absolutely convincing, explaining that it didn't occur to her -- then a 25-year old neophyte -- to confront Thomas (who was, after all, in charge of the agency that dealt with sexual harassment). It is equally clear why, with her quiet passion for the law, she told congressional investigators about the harassment as soon as they asked. Eventually, Hill took a teaching job at Oral Roberts law school, which lacked both accreditation and prestige, just to get away from Thomas. But given the hostile climate she found herself in at that conservative university, it's no wonder she was unwilling to sever her few professional connections, even those to someone like Thomas. I imagine most women reading Speaking Truth to Power will remember similar instances -- a letter of recommendation from a lecherous teacher, a reference from a sexist ex-boss.
While at the start of the book Hill's primness is grating, her tone eventually lends poignancy to her desperate attempts to retain her dignity during the escalating sexual humiliations of the hearing and its aftermath: "I will not count the number of times, even before the hearing, that I have been threatened with sodomy, rape, assault and other forms of sexual and nonsexual violence." A student columnist called her "dirty, depraved, schizophrenic and grossly sexual, a sheer idiot or a sore liar," and her treatment at the hands of Congress was only a few degrees more civilized. Sen. Alan Simpson said in a veiled threat, "Anita Hill will be sucked right into the -- the very thing she wanted to avoid most. She will be injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed."
Of course, the reader already knows what's in store for Hill. The chapters when congressional investigators first contact her and her story begins to circulate have a horror-film dimension, as we see her step, naive and afraid, into a political, sexual and racial nightmare. These chapters are the most powerful because they relate the part of the story only Hill can tell. It's the story of a shy 35-year-old woman, sweating under the glare of flashbulbs, terrified by a barrage of death threats, humiliated from relentless questioning about her sex life and horrified to find herself the object of so many powerful men's unbridled hatred and contempt. --SalonNov. 3, 1997
“A subtly complex exposition of the paradoxical blessings and banes that have beset her since the hearings. Unlike many celebrity books, it is neither slapdash nor ghostwritten, but rather an inspiring, elegantly written saga.”
“Part case history, part memoir of an Oklahoma farm girl turned lawyer who became a key figure in the gender wars…. Wonderfully illuminating.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Revealing and moving.”—Los Angeles Times
“Smart and thoughtful.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
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Read an Excerpt
Midway through the morning of my testimony at the Thomas confirmation hearing, Senator Howell Heflin, Democrat of Alabama, summed up the Republican attack on my credibility. A former state supreme court judge and trial attorney, Senator Heflin appeared to be deliberating aloud as he explained his approach.
"I, and I suppose every member of this committee, have to come down to the ultimate question of who is telling the truth. My experience as a lawyer and a judge is that you listen to all the testimony and then you try to determine the motivation for the one that is not telling the truth.
"Now, in trying to determine whether you are telling falsehoods or not, I have got to determine what your motivation might be. Are you a scorned woman?" he asked.
"No," I said, a bit surprised by the line of questioning but certain of my answer.
"Do you have a martyr complex?" With his heavy accent and deliberate pacing, "martyr" came out sounding like "mah'duh."
"No, I don't."
"Maybe she is a martyr and doesn't know it," someone behind me snickered.
"Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?"
"No, I don't." I was not certain what he meant, but I knew I was not a militant in the way the term was defined in the 1960s.
"The reality of where you are today is rather dramatic," Senator Heflin said. "Did you take, as Senator Biden asked you, all steps that you knew how to take to prevent being in the witness chair today?"
"Yes, I did. Everything that I knew to do, I did." I felt like a child who was being chastised for wandering into traffic.
Senator Heflin's questions revealed a truth about thehearing. Generally, questions about motive are raised in the context of a criminal trial. They are designed to elicit the impetus for a criminal act. The prosecution presents the theory that the accused committed the crime out of greed, rage, or passion. The defense attorney attempts to show that none of these factors existed in the case. Heflin's questions revealed that I was being treated as a defendant. The Republicans had accused me of lying about Clarence Thomas' sexual harassment of me when I worked for him ten years earlier. They effectively shifted the hearing on whether Thomas was suitable to serve on the Court to a hearing on whether I could rebut their presumption that I was lying. Primed by all the rhetoric before the hearing, the American public was predisposed to be suspicious of my statements and my behavior. Before anyone would even listen to my charges, I had to prove that my character was such that I was not guilty of inventing them. Throughout the country, people were poised to register their verdict through the polls taken during the hearing.
Years have passed since October 1991. My world has been forever changed by the events that culminated in the "Hill-Thomas hearing." I am no longer an anonymous, private individualmy name having become synonymous with sexual harassment. To my supporters I represent the courage to come forward and disclose a painful trutha courage which thousands of others have found since the hearing. To my detractors I represent the debasement of a public forum, at best, a pawn, at worst, a perjurer. Living with these conflicting perceptions is difficult, sometimes overwhelming.
The transformation of my life began before the hearing with the news reports of my claims. Overnight my world expanded and the number of persons to whom I was accountable grew exponentially as I was questioned about my experience. After the hearing the number of people who felt accountable to me grew just as surprisingly as people sought to explain the event.
I knew on October 11, 1991, that the experience would remain with me forever. I did not know that it would live with me. Gradually, the events that took place in the days and weeks following the hearing revealed that the public would not quickly or easily forget the episode. The continued media interest, like the initial intrusion of the press on my privacy, was unanticipated and uninvited on my part. To them the event was a news story. To me it was my life.
In my first dealings with the press on October 2, I was cautious though naive. By October 13 I was thoroughly skeptical and doubted that the press would discuss sexual harassment with any insight or sensitivity. Nor did I believe that all the journalistic prying was motivated by service to the public's right to know. Some of my suspicions were confirmed when I received a telephone call from an Oklahoma City attorney who represented the owner of a bar popular with lesbians. Apparently, a tabloid reporter had called the owner to find out if I frequented her establishment.
Tuesday, October 15, 1991, the day of the vote on the nomination, became my focal point. Like the first day of a long-awaited vacation, that date stood out in my mind. I saw the vote as an end to the media attention, not a referendum on my testimony, and I convinced myself that once the nomination was debated and voted on by the entire Senate, the corps of reporters would leave Norman, Oklahoma, throw away my telephone number, and move on to the next story. This mental compartmentalization allowed me to go on about my work. But I could find no way to contain the public interest. The telephones in my office rang off the hook with calls from around the country. Each day I would go home to an answering machine filled with messages and out of tape. Daily, I received an average of thirty faxes offering sympathy, extending invitations, or expressing anger over the hearing. Even before I arrived home from Washington, D.C., local florists had begun delivering plants and flowers to my office at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. The pinks, yellows, and reds of the arrangements added a curious kind of festivity to the chaos. The fragrance filled the administrative offices and conference room until they smelled like a perfumery. Still, lovely colors and smells seemed out of place amid frazzled nerves and constantly bleating phones. One of the secretaries in the main office, Rose Martinez-Elugardo, made sure that I saw all the arrangements, collecting the card from each, and students volunteered to take them to local hospitals and nursing homes. Selfishly, I regretted that I could not preserve them all.
The enormous amount of mail was testament to the extraordinary level of public interest in the hearing. Beginning on Tuesday, October 15, the Postal Service started delivering trays of letters addressed to me. Some of them must have been written and mailed on the day of my testimony. And as the days passed, the volume of letters increased. By October 19 I was receiving two trays of cards and letters, each tray containing about seven hundred pieces of mail. I told myself that this probably represented a backlog of mail and would stop. I was wrong. The following day brought five trays, and the deliveries continued at this pace for three weeks. The mail came from around the country and then from around the world.
Teaching a full load at the law school and working as a faculty representative in the office of the provost on the main campus left me little time to read, let alone respond to, the incoming mail. The telephone calls, as well, went mostly unreturned. A group of women in the university community organized to help me with the mail after work hours. Fifteen or so cheerful, enthusiastic volunteers gathered in the law school lounge, eager to be helpful in any way that they could. After a few hours of opening and sorting, we had finished only a fraction of the letters. The mood shifted when it dawned upon us that the time and cost of responding to them all was prohibitive. We could not even afford to acknowledge receipt of most of the correspondence.
People of all ages, races, and backgrounds wrote. Just about every category of person imaginable who had seen, heard, or read about the hearing took time to put their reactions into words. Some letters were from old friends who wanted to reconnect after years of no communication, but most were from strangers expressing their concern about what they had witnessed. "This is the first time I have ever written a public figure," many began. The letters spelled out a huge range of emotion, from sympathy to anger to joy. Many writers were outraged at what they considered insensitivity on the part of certain senators, or frustrated by the unsatisfactory resolution of the issue. Many had experienced sexual harassment firsthand. Many more related to sexual harassment as a violation of basic human dignity. Some decried the way that politics had pervaded the judicial appointment process. Others were deeply concerned about the quality of political representation evidenced by the behavior of the senators on the Judiciary Committee. Each letter in its own way established a link between the writer and me. We had a common experience so potent as to create a bond between total strangers. "I feel like I know you," many wrote.
In the quiet of my office, after classes were over and most of the staff had left, I tried to read at least forty letters a day. Many, especially those from harassment victims, were heart-wrenching. Because of their intensity and my fatigue, reading my assigned number of the letters at the end of a workday often proved impossible. I would become despondent and unable to continue, or angered by my own helplessness to change things. I changed my routine, setting aside time to read the mail first thing in the morning. But this was a mistake because after reading of all the embarrassment, anger, grief, I could not focus on my work. This letter speaking of abuse or that letter describing disillusionment stayed with me all day.
Not all of the letters caused me dismay. I laughed at humorous characterizations of my senatorial detractors. A letter from proud parents of an infant brought a smile to my face, and still does. "If this photo brings you half the joy she brings us, we will be pleased," they wrote.
Though there were the threatening, vulgar, and just plain cruel messages, they were few, and I thank God for that. So as not to delude myself into believing that everyone saw my testimony in a positive light, I read those as well. The outrage I felt over the abusive experiences described in some of the letters numbed me to any cruelty my detractors could dish out. In the face of so much pain, their hostility seemed trivial.
The people who took time to write, even those who expressed anger at me, seemed to want to make sense out of the hearing. They wanted to understand for themselves and in some cases for me. I cannot overstate the importance of these letters, notes, and other messages. They were crucial to my endurance and ultimately to my recovery. I had been deeply wounded by the allegations about me during and after the hearing, but I had had no place to heal. The scrutiny of critics and curious onlookers, from the tabloid press to people on the street, seemed constant. Certainly, talking about the experience with my family and friends was a great relief. And prayer sustained me daily. Yet it was knowing that people I had never met shared my concerns that lifted me spiritually when I was alone in my office with their letters. If the hearing had left me feeling isolated and out of touch with the world, the correspondence afterward helped me to reconnect with it.
The event known as the Hill-Thomas hearing has been described variously as a watershed in American politics, a turning point in the awareness of sexual harassment, and a wake-up call for women. For me it was a bane which I have worked hard to transform into a blessing for myself and for others. And because it brought to bear for the average public issues of sexual harassment, issues of race, gender, and politics, the hearing and all of the events that surrounded it deserve honest assessment.
But I am no longer content to leave the assessment to others, for they cannot know what I experiencedwhat I felt, saw, heard, and thought. Whatever others may say, I must address these questions for myself. I have not lived one day since the hearing without feeling its significance or the immeasurable weight of responsibility it has left with me. During her testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Judge Susan Hoerchner commented that I did not choose the issue of sexual harassment; rather, it chose me. Having been chosen, I have come to believe that it is up to me to try to give meaning to it all.
During his inquiry Senator Heflin suggested "other motivations" for my testimony. "Are you interested in writing a book?"
"No, I'm not interested in writing a book," I replied.
The transcript of the confirmation hearing recorded the chuckles and snickers that went through the room as "laughter." The suggestion that all of this might have been motivated by aspirations to write a book must have seemed preposterous to anyone. In any case, the exchange provided one of the few moments of comic relief during the hearing.
This book is not intended as a detached or dispassionate chronicle. I am objective enough only to realize that I cannot write such a book. Instead, I write to offer my own perspective. I do this not simply to survive the tragedy but to transcend it. I do not undertake this endeavor lightly. I have never had much interest in writing anything beyond legal articles and essays. The very idea of writing a book of personal reflection is counter to my nature. I do not eagerly share with strangers the personal aspects of my life. Sometimes I fear that my writing will not communicate the power of my experience effectively. Sometimes I fear that it might, thus provoking further attacks on me. But it is as important today as it was in 1991 that I feel free to speak. If I let my fears silence me now, I will have betrayed all of those who supported me in 1991 and those who have come forward since. More than anything else, the Hill-Thomas hearing of October 1991 was about finding our voices and breaking the silence forever.
And so, despite my reply to Senator Heflin, I begin.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Anita F. Hill, is a professor of social policy, law, and women's studies at Brandeis University, where she teaches courses on Race and the Law and Gender Equality. After receiving her JD from Yale Law School in 1980, she worked as the attorney-advisor to Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education. In 1991, she testified at the Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. She gained national exposure when her allegations of sexual harassment were made public. She is the author of Speaking Truth to Power, in which she wrote about her experience as a witness in the Thomas hearings. She is also the author of Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. Hill has written widely on issues of race and gender in publications such as the New York Times, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Critical Race Feminism, and others. She has appeared on Today, 60 Minutes, Meet the Press, and Face the Nation.
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As a white male who has experienced sexual harassment, I techincally would not fit the image of sexual harassment or Anita Hill's defintion. One thing that was disappointing about this book was that she reflected to much on racial and gender politics, although in her case they are undeniable. I believe her with the charges that she brings up in this book. She hit a vein, I think, in talking about African American politics and how it has hampered any attempt at adjudicating the problem. I sympathize with Ms. Hill. I think she was sexually harassed by Clarance Thomas and was harassed even more worsely by Republican Senators bent on revenge and cowardly Democratic Senators. Her story was certainly manipulated by David Brock and relied on insinuations for Senator Spector (shame on him). I, think, however that Ms. Hill was too smart a woman to be either a pawn or not politically connected. The latter charge by her I would dispute. I hope one day Ms. Hill gets the justice she deserves.
She did everything she could to bring down a brilliant legal scholar. Had Clarence Thomas been a liberal I doubt Anita Hill would have had a problem with him.