Reimaging Anita Hill: Finding strength in her story

Anita Hill’s story didn’t end in 1991. But it didn’t begin there either.

Perhaps best known for her testimony during the confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Hill tracks her story of strength in the face of adversity back to her earliest memories.

Born in Morris, Okla., in 1956, Hill was the last of 13 children born to Albert, a farmer, and Irma Hill, a farmer’s daughter who shaped the future of more than just her youngest.

“We are all so different, and we were all allowed to be different,” Hill said. “I never heard my mother say, ‘Oh, you should be more like your sister, Doris.’ And I don’t think she ever told Doris to be more like John. She had the good sense and wisdom to allow us to be who we are. Not only allow it, I think she liked the fact we were all different, our own selves.”

Hill’s mother, who knew her share of struggles growing up, demanded the best for – and from – her children.

“My father was OK with education; my mother was insistent,” Hill said. “She was very committed to the idea we were all going to get an education. I marvel at this idea she was able to have a vision for her children that far exceeded her present circumstances.”

The Hill family’s oldest went to college in the 1940s, a time when women and minorities, especially ones from the rural U.S. South, were not doing so. But the family made that commitment and sent their daughter away. “There was no guarantee she was going to be able to do anything with her education,” Hill said. “The odds were stacked against it with so many limitations to opportunity.”

What followed was a remarkable series of opportunities for the family. When it came her turn, Hill did not disappoint.

The Morris High School valedictorian (Class of 1973) would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Oklahoma State University in 1977 and JD from Yale University Law School in 1980. She would go on to teach at Oral Roberts University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of California at Berkeley. She has been at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management since 1999.

In between, Hill stepped – willingly, if not intentionally – into the national spotlight and sparked an awakening in women in the workplace.

In 1991, then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lifetime appointment requires a U.S. Senate hearings and confirmation. Despite questionable credentials, Thomas’ confirmation was a near certainty until an FBI interview with Hill, conducted during the vetting process, was leaked shortly before the final vote. His hearing was reopened, and Hill was called to publicly testify.

That was October 1991. The events shook out over a matter of days. During her time before the often-hostile Senate committee, with her parents seated in the galley, Hill explained how Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at both the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1981-82.

“My parents were behind me (while I testified), and I figured if I can live up to their standards then I wasn’t really worried about living up to the Senate’s standards,” Hill said.

Hill’s testimony was supported by numerous other witnesses, coming forward with similar stories.

“My job was not to make the decision about what they did with my story,” she said. “My job was to tell them what happened, and, in some ways, let them know how relevant it was to the decision they were making about who was going to be given a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Thomas would go on to be confirmed by a 52-48 vote in the U.S. Senate, the narrowest margin in more than a century. He has served on the nation’s highest court since as one of its most hardline conservative and controversial justices.

Despite the outcome, foregone to many, but disappointing nevertheless to supporters, Hill tapped into something that still echoes in her current work.

“I think I found out that with all the laws on the books against sexual harassment, there was still discrimination occurring. There was a gap between the law and the way people live,” she said. “It takes more than simply putting a law on the books to get them to where the law promised them they would be.”

And that conversation, in some ways, has not ended. “If you told me 20 years later that people are still going to be talking about this, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said.

Her lecture next week plays off her recent book, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home, which examines housing policy and the recent crisis through the lens of race and gender.

As she discovered during those trying days two decades ago, Hill sees our current concept of equality as one based on stated rights, and little else. Each important and worth defending, she explained, but none come with a guarantee. “Simply having those rights does not mean we are all equal,” she said.

By way of example, she cited how much something as simple as where one lives can determine success. Education. Transportation. Employment. Health care. The quality and availability of each depend greatly on where you call home.

Apply that reasoning to the housing crisis, where location often determined everything from lending practices to buyer protections to home quality, and you start to see where Hill’s latest research has focused.

“Everybody sees (the housing crisis) from their perspective,” said Hill, who witnessed it from Massachusetts. “That shows you we’re not just talking about a national crisis, but we’re talking about a local crisis, an individual crisis, a family crisis. There are so many layers to this – from the global all the way down to the individual – that we are not looking at.”

While the discussion has shifted for Hill, although the subject of equality remains centre, she knows she’ll never escape her past. Not that she wants to.

“Whenever I think I am sick of talking about it, I think about all the young women who I encountered during and following (my lectures). And then I think even if I am sick of talking about it, so what, I still need to talk about it because  they still need help understanding what is going on in their lives, how to interpret it, how to deal with it, how to move on and be the best they can be,” Hill said. “It’s never the same conversation over and over again. There are always ways that we can learn and grow from this conversation.

“So that’s why I continue to talk about it.”

LESSONS FROM AMERICA

Professor Anita Hill will deliver her Centre for American Studies Speakers’ Series lecture, The Value of Belonging: Reimagining Equality in the 21st Century, at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 13 in Conron Hall, University College, Room 224. The lecture is presented by the Canada-U.S. Institute and Centre for American Studies, in cooperation with the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.

Hill is the third participant in the Canada-U.S. Institute’s Visiting Fellows Program, which brings policy-makers, journalists and scholars to Western, where they speak and write about critical issues confronting the two countries. She joins Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and former U.S. presidential candidate, and David Frum, author and former special assistant to President George W. Bush.