Anita Hill : Legacy lives on after 25 years, up till today’s Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers
How did the misconduct of the powerful in the 1990s—and the bravery of a workplace-harassment pioneer—inform where we are today? The author of The Naughty Nineties searches for an answer.
- DAVID FRIEND OCTOBER 13, 2017 5:03 PM
The upcoming HBO movie “Confirmation” revisits the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, which were roiled by controversy when law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment.
Now, in an exclusive interview, Anita Hill tells TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie that “it’s important for us, I think, to relive the story and continue to learn the lessons from it.” She says, “I’m at peace with my place in history,” but adds that she does not have to be at peace with Thomas being on the Supreme Court.
The 1990s were promising years for the young and the restless who were trying to make it in Hollywood. Indie films were in their heyday. Producer Harvey Weinstein was helping to bankroll and champion watershed features like Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love. And yet it was during this same period, according to recent accounts by various accusers, that Weinstein allegedly engaged in predatory sexual behavior, beginning as early as 1991. (Some women say they accepted the producer’s offers to meet with them because of the considerable sway he held over countless Hollywood careers. Weinstein has insisted that such encounters were consensual, denying certain accusations and apologizing for others.)
Though battles continue to be fought over sexual harassment—along with sex discrimination, gender inequity, domestic violence and abuse, and hate crimes against members of the L.G.B.T. community—the 1990s, in hindsight, proved to be the decade when many of these issues came to the fore. Particularly, the 90s were a turning point in the public outrage over workplace misconduct, such as harassment, intimidation, coercion, and assault. Almost on a monthly basis, men in positions of power—members of the clergy, elected officials, athletes, performers, and business figures—were being castigated in the press, and in the court filings, for allegations of unwelcome sexual behavior.
As I describe this pattern in my new book, The Naughty Nineties, “Incidents involving pedophile priests regularly surfaced after years of silence, denial, and hush money. Frequent, too, were accusations of sexual misconduct—or of behavior that might be perceived as unbecoming a public servant—against lawmakers and governors and political figures (Democrats and Republicans) throughout the 80s and 90s, including Jon Hinson, Robert Bauman, John Schmitz, Dan Crane,Brock Adams, John Tower, Buz Lukens, Bob Packwood, Dan Burton, Henry Hyde, and Mel Reynolds.”
Indeed, President Bill Clinton himself, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, battled allegations that, while governor of Arkansas, he had made a crude sexual overture to a state employee, Paula Jones. (The Jones suit was eventually settled with no admission of wrongdoing on Clinton’s part.) And even as Clinton was impeached—in part for lying under oath about a romantic relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky—his nemesis Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, as I’ve noted, “was involved in his own affair. [His] designated successor, Bob Livingston, would withdraw his name from nomination in 1999 amid rumors of his own extramarital activities. And his replacement, Dennis Hastert, would eventually be branded a ‘serial child molester’ and sent to jail.”)
Predatory patterns of behavior, of course, were hardly a secret. For centuries, politicians had sexually pressured or compromised underlings. Since the earliest days of the talkies, the so-called casting couch had been a film-colony fixture. What was new, however, was that the victims of these acts—despite the influence of their bosses or the potential damage to their careers—decided to speak out, aided by new statutes and grievance procedures that protected accusers. As has happened with the flood of accusers coming forward with stories about Harvey Weinstein in the last week, many found confidence in the sheer number of women who were emerging from the shadows to explain how they too had been intimidated, traumatized, dehumanized.
But in looking back over the past quarter century, it is hard to overstate the significance of a single figure who had helped lay the groundwork for many of the revelations that followed. Her name is Anita Hill.
In 1991, jurist Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush. And Senate aides, in the lead-up to Thomas’s confirmation hearings, became aware of a purported pattern of behavior by Thomas involving unwelcome and sexually suggestive comments. (Thomas would vehemently deny the allegations. Ironically, he headed up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [E.E.O.C.], the arm of government that oversaw compliance with laws protecting American workers’ civil rights.)
Anita Hill, a law professor, was a former employee of Thomas’s, whose story began to surface. Investigators phoned her and inquired if she would be willing to testify about Thomas before Congress. She said that she might consider appearing—but only if the committee would canvass responses from other former colleagues as well. Indeed, as Hill told me when I interviewed her for my book, at first she had balked at the idea: “If she were to come out with her charges, she realized, she would have to dredge up long-ago incidents that were embarrassing, shameful, and personal. She would be navigating new legal and social terrain, without fixed guidelines. She would be putting Thomas’s career on the line, as well as her own, risking her privacy and reputation.”
Nonetheless, Hill, who had faithfully served in the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan, agreed to testify on Capitol Hill. And facing an all-white, all-male committee of senators—and a national television audience—she vividly detailed encounters in which Thomas, her boss, had allegedly made graphic sexual remarks, discussed porn, or asked her out on dates.
Hill’s testimony was explosive. And the backlash was swift and devastating. “After the hearings,” she stated, “when people were polled, 6 out of 10 people did not believe me.” Thomas, insisting the allegations were false, was narrowly confirmed by a vote of 52 to 48.
Even so, Hill had made her mark. “The fact that I was able to get up there and say [what I said] was a triumph,” she told me. “I was able to tell the truth of what happened in the face of all those people trying to completely silence me. I could not have done it without four corroborating witnesses—people I’d told years before the nomination.” In fact, in the year following her Senate appearance, as I have written, the E.E.O.C. “saw a twofold rise in the number of women filing on-the-job harassment grievances. Aided in part by Hill’s public disclosures, the coffers began to swell at EMILY’s List, a group that backed the candidates of female pro-choice Democrats. And by the fall of 1992, in what many would call the ‘Anita Hill Class,’ 28 new female members were voted into Congress, an unprecedented number.”
Many women have taken similarly valiant stances in the years since, but Hill’s legacy lives on; Rose McGowan, one of Harvey Weinstein’s most vocal accusers, acknowledged as much in a tweet on Friday:
Despite the progress in the 1990s, many workplaces have remained resistant to change. In countless offices, institutions, and schools it is still dangerous to speak out against company leaders or high-ranking officials who engage in sexual misconduct. In certain human-resources departments, those tasked with screening grievances sometimes report directly to the alleged predators themselves. In Silicon Valley, more and more women have accused top tech companies of espousing a “boy’s club” culture—and much, much worse.
Weinstein may have been found out. So too the late Roger Ailes, the Fox News co-founder, who, as early as the 1990s, reportedly dangled a raise to a co-worker at CNBC in exchange for sexual favors. So too Bill Cosby, whose accusers have alleged incidents of sexual assault—denied by Cosby—dating back to the 1960s.
But even as brave women continue to come forward—some recalling Anita Hill’s lead—one thing remains abundantly clear. Clarence Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court. And Donald Trump—who has boasted that his star status allows him to go up to women and “grab ‘em by the pussy” without their consent—occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 2017, in Washington’s corridors of power, the penalties for Weinstein-ian behavior—and what Trump has called “locker-room talk”—have yet to be levied. But perhaps that day will come. A year ago, a string of accusers spoke out, describing incidents of harassment, untoward advances, and assault involving Donald Trump, all of which he has denied. If some of these accusers were to acquire the funds, the legal support, and the critical mass to decide to expound on their claims (as Anita Hill did in 1991) or press charges (as Paula Jones did in 1994), there might be legislators or judges willing to give them a hearing.
David Friend, Vanity Fair’s Editor of Creative Development, is the author of The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido.