In October 1991, Americans were riveted by the spectacle of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee questioning Anita Hill, the African-American law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
TV viewers, both male and female, watched in increasing discomfort as the senators asked Hill about large-breasted women, a porn star named Long Dong Silver and pubic hair on a Coke can, among other previously unthinkable subjects for a Senate committee hearing.
But for women, Hill’s testimony would have special significance, as it was the first time someone had so publicly shared her account of workplace harassment—something that so many of them had experienced.
Though the committee would eventually confirm Thomas, making him only the second Black man to serve on the Supreme Court, the impact of Hill’s televised testimony would reverberate dramatically across the nation, with lasting consequences that endure today.
“I think women saw play out, in the most human terms, Anita Hill—credible and very much reflecting the experiences of so many other women—being demeaned, being dismissed and being mistreated by an array of male senators,” says Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president emerita of the National Women’s Law Center. “And when they reflected upon it at the end of the hearings, their anger began to rise, and their determination to do something about it began to increase.”
Both Thomas and Hill had risen from poor rural childhoods in segregated America, graduated from Yale Law School and launched promising legal careers in Washington, D.C. Their paths converged at the U.S. Department of Education in 1981, when Thomas hired Hill to be his special assistant in the department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Shortly after that, according to Hill, Thomas began harassing her, a pattern that would continue after Thomas left his post to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and Hill moved with him to continue as his assistant.
Hill, who left Washington in 1983 and became a law professor in her native Oklahoma, was initially reluctant to come forward with her allegations against Thomas. But in the late summer of 1991, she was contacted by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who had heard rumors of possible misconduct by Thomas against at least one female employee in his past. After a three-day FBI investigation led the White House to determine the allegations were “unfounded,” the reporter Nina Totenberg of NPR learned of the FBI report and revealed Hill’s accusations to the public for the first time.
On October 11, Hill testified before the committee that Thomas had asked her out repeatedly and that even after she refused, often talked to her in graphic detail about sex. Throughout the brutally uncomfortable questioning by senators, Hill retained her composure, even when forced to repeat again and again the most disturbing and embarrassing parts of Thomas' alleged harassment. Years later, the committee’s Democratic chairman, Joe Biden, would publicly apologize to Hill for not protecting her from his fellow senators’ grilling.
Thomas vehemently denied Hill’s allegations and invoked racial discrimination, calling the hearing “a national disgrace...a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” imagining Thomas’ harassment, or of committing “flat-out perjury,” in the words of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah even accused her of borrowing the Coke can incident from the 1971 novel The Exorcist. Despite Hill’s testimony, and that of four corroborating witnesses who said she talked with them about Thomas’ behavior at the time, the Senate voted to confirm Thomas 52-48, the narrowest margin in nearly a century.
Yet Hill’s testimony had an immediate impact in other ways. “She sparked conversations among women that they had never had before about experiences that they realized were shared by so many others,” Greenberger says. “This was the first time that they saw they weren't alone, both by her telling her own story, and then by their discussing their stories with their friends and family.”
Phones at the National Women’s Law Center began ringing off the hook, Greenberger remembers, as women sought legal advice to deal with the sexual harassment that they had faced. Claims of sexual harassment filed with the EEOC shot up, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which gave victims of workplace sexual harassment more legal recourse. State laws began to change as well, and anti-sexual harassment programs became the norm in offices across the country.
In 1992, the year after Hill testified, a record number of female politicians were elected to office, part of what became known as the “Year of the Woman.” Twenty-four women won election to the House of Representatives (which more than doubled the total number of female representatives at the time) and four women were elected to the Senate, bringing the total number to six.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who first won election during that momentous year, would become the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee by 2018, when the committee confronted another charge of sexual misconduct, made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, against another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
Through the intervening decades, sexual misconduct has figured prominently in U.S. politics and culture. President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his relationship with the young White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, was exposed as making lewd advances on women with the public release of a recorded tape. And Americans have seen the rise of the #MeToo movement, alongside the revelations of sexual misconduct and harassment on the part of numerous powerful men in entertainment, politics, business and other fields.
“I think that #MeToo has roots in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing, in Anita Hill's extraordinary testimony, and in the strength of her character,” says Greenberg. “On the other hand, I also think that progress is not always linear, and there are fits and starts along the way.
According to Greenberger, Hill is an “icon” and a “national leader,” who still has an important role to play in the changed America her testimony helped create. For her part, Hill wrote in the New York Times about the high stakes that accompany the Kavanaugh hearings, and her advice for how the Senate Judiciary Committee could handle them differently than in 1991.
“With years of hindsight, mounds of evidence of the prevalence and harm that sexual violence causes individuals and our institutions,” she wrote, “as well as a Senate with more women than ever, ‘not getting it’ isn’t an option for our elected representatives. In 2018, our senators must get it right.”