Anita Hill, in white jacket, says the promise of feminism is the unification of various marginalized groups

Anita Hill Sees Peril and Promise for Feminism

Hill, who visits in May, started a national conversation on sexual harassment thirty years ago in testifying against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas

By Matt Cooper Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP April 10, 2024

6 min read 

When Anita Hill testified in 1991 that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had subjected her years earlier to unwanted sexual advances, she says much of America had never even heard the term sexual harassment.

Today the term is commonplace and there is “an expectation of accountability,” Hill says—and not just for sexual harassment, but for attacks ranging from partner violence to stalking to cyberthreats.

Hill testified to Congress that Thomas, among other inappropriate behavior, had repeatedly asked her for dates and spoke about pornography in the office when they worked together in the 1980s, a charge he vehemently denied. Thomas was confirmed and Hill’s life was turned upside down; she was condemned by many for her testimony but validated by people who flooded her with stories of sexual harassment.

Now a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, Hill is a leader in the fight against gender-based violence. Her most recent book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence, is a University of Oregon Common Reading selection. 

Oregon Quarterly interviewed her in advance of a May 9 speaking engagement at the University of Oregon that is free and open to the public. Hill will present the 2023–24 Lorwin Lecture on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, concluding fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Center for the Study of Women in Society and held in partnership with the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.

Oregon Quarterly: What have you learned from your advocacy regarding gender violence?

Anita Hill: The cultural biases that allow gender violence to go unaccounted for are often shored up through structures. They can even be legal structures meant to correct the violence. Very few rape cases are ever adjudicated—around 6 percent. District attorneys may not feel that they can have a conviction. The same thing has happened in cases involving intimate partner violence. The criminal justice system is making progress. Statutes of limitations are being extended to allow for people to come forward who in the past didn’t come forward because they were convinced nothing would be done.

In the civil process, many people can’t even access the system because it’s too costly. Many lawyers can’t afford to take those cases because the amount you can recover is less than what it costs to pursue the case. There’s also the fear of retaliation. Some say as many as 60 percent of people who file sexual harassment cases in the workplace will be retaliated against.

OQ: What are the perils and promises of this moment for feminism?

Anita Hill, in pink jacket, says the promise of feminism is the unification of various marginalized groups

AH: One chief peril is that the courts are tightening the laws that protect against civil rights violations. Whether it’s equal pay or abortion or sexual harassment, the limitations that are coming out of the Supreme Court have really shrunk all rights and I don’t see that changing with today’s Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg complained about it in 2017, that the court was moving in a direction to corral the protections that were intended under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and now we’ve seen it really being played out, not just in terms of gender. If you bring a gender discrimination case and the justices are doing an interpretation of the civil rights law, it will have implications for race, religion, disability—all the other covered categories. That’s the peril that is the most frightening.

The promise is that we are beginning, as a society, to understand that none of these categories can stand alone, that any number of us can be implicated when the court reduces the protections under the civil rights law. The promise in that is it gives us a reason to work together in terms of a movement and awareness and speaking out, and in terms of the laws and policies that get enacted at the federal, state, or local level.

OQ: Your latest book, “Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence,” is a story of America’s long reckoning with gender violence. Are we making progress?

AH: In terms of awareness, we are better now than we were thirty years ago. But one of the things that is truly missing is trust in our structures that there will be accountability. The Hollywood Commission [a group chaired by Hill that fights abuse in entertainment] has done surveys that included sixteen thousand workers in Hollywood; we found there is greater awareness and a desire to step forward but there’s still a lack of trust that the system will bring about that accountability.

OQ: How do you talk about Justice Thomas today? Do you comment on his decisions or concerns that make news?

AH: I tend not to comment on Clarence Thomas. I comment on the movement of the court in terms of its failure to appreciate the need for robust civil rights protections. Certainly Clarence Thomas has been one of the more vocal justices and some of the rhetoric and the cases that are being decided by this majority on the court are saying, “Now is a time to challenge the civil rights gains that have been made over the last few decades.” This court is aggressive and activist in terms of pursuing a change in the law that will be in effect for decades to come if we don’t step up to counter it in society. Restricting civil rights, that is the court’s current movement.

OQ: What change would you make to the process for Supreme Court nominations regarding protections for people with powerful testimony opposing a nominee?

AH: There was no system when I came forward. The Senate Judiciary Committee had my statement but there was no sense of what they were going to do, what kind of processes they were going to go through for me to come forward. Even when Christine Blasey Ford testified against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, she faced that same kind of confusion.

We need to fix that. At the very least, we ought to give people a chance to be heard in a fair process where their information is fully investigated—and not investigated at the direction of the people who are nominating a person for the Supreme Court. Donald Trump was president and directing the FBI investigation of the allegations against Kavanaugh—that should never have happened. The investigation should be fair and impartial.

OQ: You’ve been called “courageous” for the testimony you gave thirty-three years ago. From where did that bravery come?

AH: I was born in 1956, I grew up in an era of a lot of bravery. The civil rights and women’s rights movements were brave and you’d see them on TV and hear about them on the radio or read in the newspaper about them. That was part of where it comes from.

There’s also everyday bravery: the bravery of my parents, who raised thirteen children. My mother was so clear in her mind about what she wanted for her children—to get an education and go to college and be able to pursue life to the fullest. That takes bravery. She was born in 1911 and much of her life was in Jim Crow Oklahoma, but she never gave up. You have to call that bravery—not assuming that the world is always going to be against you.

If you want to call it bravery or courage, knowing that I’m telling the truth allowed me to be brave.

Matt Cooper is managing editor for Oregon Quarterly.

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