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Kerry Washington. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Victim becomes villain

25 years later, there is still a lot to learn about the Anita Hill sexual harassment case

April 8, 2016

“Anita who?” asked my 34-year-old trainer, innocent of what amounted to a show trial when Anita Hill, an African-American law professor, was publicly humiliated in 1991 for exposing the hidden shame of millions of women subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. Called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee against the word of her former boss, Clarence Thomas (also African-American), she faced a prosecutorial panel of 13 white male lawmakers.

Today’s young women may have heard jokes about “pubic hair on a Coke can” or the mystifying phrase “Long Dong Silver.” Those were among the lewd phrases this prim, dignified woman was forced to repeat again and again as she catalogued the sexual comments her married boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] inflicted on her when she refused to date him.

Kerry Washington’s performance in the HBO biopic Confirmation, available later this month, channels Hill’s courage and poise as she sat alone at the witness table, facing lacerating questions by Republican senators, one of whom called her complaint of sexual harassment “crap.” She remained precise in her facts against the impassive faces of a Democratic majority, who dared not say a word in her defense for fear of being called racist. Some may have been sweating out their own histories of groping female staffers.

Kerry Washington in the role of Anita Hill, in "Confirmation" (HBO)
Kerry Washington plays Anita Hill in “Confirmation” (HBO)

I was among the millions of Americans transfixed for more than two weeks by the nonstop television coverage of the hearing. But the HBO film sheds light on what many of us may have forgotten about the event that created a profound cultural and political shift in thinking about women in the workplace. An archival news clip shows NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell reporting on “a decision that was personally approved by the President [George H.W. Bush]; they decided to go after [Hill], and to float all sorts of stories about erotic fantasies and psychological problems.”

Bush saw the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the legendary civil rights champion, as an opportunity to appoint a more conservative black justice. In Thomas, Republicans saw another vote on decisions they would use to kill affirmative action and try to outlaw abortion.

At Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit, women of all ages were reminded today of “The Lasting Impact of Anita Hill” in a panel of women — including Washington — still blistering with outrage.

“So, did you believe her?” Washington was asked by moderator Cynthia McFadden, who reported on the original event.
The actress dodged the question three times, and finally said, “The film is not about me. It’s about a woman who made a courageous act in coming up against a system of powerful people with agendas that didn’t include her.”

She admitted feeling “awful pressure” in playing this heroine. “She’s still alive!” She did have the advantage of lots of live footage and voice recordings, which she studied intensely. After a period of awkwardness, the two women were able to bond around the loss of privacy. Washington admitted she lost the privacy of going to parks to play with her kids. Anita lost her privacy forever.”

Anita Hill. (Getty Images)
Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Getty Images)

McFadden then posed the most piercing question for any screenwriter who must take take an historic event and turn it into a gripping fictional film. “We don’t know what is true — can you tell us?”

The screenwriter, Susannah Grant, who also wrote Erin Brockovich, was also reluctant to go on the record judging between he said-she said. “My motivation was to know what happened in the rooms where powerful people decided how hearing would come out. But there’s nothing in the movie that I can’t back up with research.”

Rumored yelps have been reported from Washington senators and even vice-president Biden that they are not happy with their depiction. “Nobody was happy then – they told me it was one of the most painful experiences of their lives,” Grant retorted. “Why would any of them be happy now?”

Sally Quinn, a consummate Washington insider, hesitated a millisecond when asked if she believed Anita Hill was telling the truth. “Absolutely!” The widow of the legendary editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, said, then walked the audience through her own painful personal experience that is resurrected by the film.

She was a pup journalist when her father introduced her to Senator John Tower, a power broken as head of the Armed Services Committee. The Texan showed an interest in her studies of theater and invited her to lunch. The day came, but he wanted to switch it to dinner. “I should have been suspicious then,” Quinn said, still trying to shake the guilt.” “We went to a French restaurant. He tried to hold my hand, he was drinking heavily.” Squirming with discomfort at the time, she told him she had to get home early and left the restaurant. But the predator followed.

“He grabbed my arm and dragged me across the street, up the stairs to a bar, and ordered a drink. I was so scared, I went down stairs and hailed a cab, but he jumped in behind me and tried to undress me and have sex with me. The cabdriver heard me screaming, ‘Senator, Senator!’

The shocked hush cast an audience of nearly 3,000 silent.

“It felt like the cabbie drove 100 mph,” Quinn went on, “but by this time, he was on top of me, trying to get his pants off. I was hysterical. Finally, the cab driver jumped out and opened the door, ’We’re here, m’am.’ I had to get dressed again, and run into my house. I never told anybody for several years.”

This was not the end of Quinn’s story.

When Tower was nominated by President H.W. Bush to be his Secretary of Defense, the FBI showed up at Quinn’s door. The agents said, “We understand there’s a story that Senator Tower tried to rape you.”

Quinn put her foot down: “I’m not discussing this. By then, Quinn was married to the legendary editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee.

The agents said, “It will be confidential.”

“Are you kidding me?” Quinn laughed in their faces. “How do you think we at the Washington Post get our stories – through people like you!”

Fast forward two years to the Anita Hill hearing. She, too, had been assured that her story would be kept confidential. “All I could think about,” says Quinn,“is that could have been me.”

Ricki Seidman is the film’s other heroine. As a chief Senate investigator working for Senator Ted Kennedy, she was tipped off to Hill as a woman who could verify rumors about Thomas’s inappropriate treatment of female employees. Seidman interviewed Hill and believed her story absolutely. But Hill was not looking for a chance to go after Thomas. “In my experience at EEOC with sexual harassment claims, the victim becomes the villain,” Hill told Seidman. Knowing her testimony would expose her to humiliation and threats, she ultimately came to believe that the right thing to do was to speak truth to power.

Women friends of mine had knock-down-dragout fights with spouses who couldn’t accept that Hill was telling a truth that all of us had experienced. “Men just don’t get it” became the signature quote. But women weren’t going to slink away in shame or defeat.

We cheered when a group of rogue women House members invaded the Senate dining room, then a den of white male privilege, and demanded that the senators delay Thomas’s confirmation vote and hold a full hearing on the charges.

Brushed off by then-Senator Joseph Biden, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the women fanned out through the room, warning the men, “You hear those phone calls? That’s the sound of 51 percent of your constituents, telling you that if you vote for Thomas, they will not forget it.”

Susan Deller Ross, one of Hill’s attorneys, believes that Biden played the most egregious role in real life, as he does in the film. In recent years, the vice president has been taking credit for mounting the Hill-Thomas sexual harassment hearing. “That is counter–factual,” Ross responds icily.

The truth will emerge — again — with the airing of the HBO film. As chair of the judiciary committee, Biden’s proper role was to be neutral. Instead, he forced Hill to repeat the most lurid accounts of Thomas’s verbal sexual abuse, in which he bragged about the size of his penis, calling it Long Dong Silver. Biden had laid down a defense for Thomas at the opening of the hearing: “Without a pattern, there is no sexual harassment.” But when he was offered three female witnesses who had worked for Thomas at EEOC, and who would have corroborated the pattern of Thomas’s sexual harassment, he refused to call them.

Since that time, however, Biden has become a vocal proponent of women’s rights and protections, enacting the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 and launching an initiative in 2014 that urges college campuses to actively support victims of sexual assault. Earlier this year, he appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony to publicize the problem of sexual abuse, on and off college campuses.

Ricki Seidman overcame her boss’s reluctance to speak up for Hill. “Senator Kennedy’s vulnerability came from a rape trial of his nephew that summer,” she reminded me. Kennedy had earned his rakish reputation long before with the Chappaquiddick incident, when he notoriously left the scene of a car crash in which a young female campaign aide drowned.

But Kennedy did inject a solitary note of decency into the hearing’s tawdry line of questioning. “I hope we can clear this room of the dirt and innuendo … and be sensitive to the attempts at character assassination of Professor Hill,” he said. “They are unworthy.”

A scene from HBO's "Confirmation." (HBO)
A scene from HBO’s “Confirmation.” (HBO)

Shortly after the confirmation vote that elevated Thomas to the highest bench, Susan Deller Ross attended a meeting of women state legislators in California. When the defeated Hill walked in, looking downcast, every woman stood up and waved a peach napkin.

I remember the same exhilaration in a ballroom in New York. The very mention of Anita Hill’s name led women to stand on our chairs and wave napkins. As that gesture of solidarity spread across the country, Hill began forcing herself to read thousands of letters sent to her by women whose shame and hopelessness were overturned by her courage to come forward and tell their stories within hers.

“I tried to read at least 40 letters a day. Many, especially those from harassment victims, were heart-wrenching,” Hill wrote in Speaking Truth to Power (1997). “Because of the intensity of the letters and my fatigue, I would become despondent or angered by my own helplessness to change things.”

But the aftershocks the following year vastly changed the landscape for American women. 1992 was known as “The Year of the Woman.” Four new women were elected to the U.S. Senate, including the first black female senator, Carol Moseley Braun, and Dianne Feinstein, who staked out the first female membership on the Judiciary Committee. Nineteen new women members were elected to the House.

The hearings, which had received worldwide attention and generated an immense leap in awareness of workplace harassment, resulted in Hill receiving a damages remedy for sexual harassment. She later joined the faculty at Brandeis University, where she now holds a university professorship, one of the university’s highest honors.

What has changed, and what still hasn’t? the panelists were asked.

“From the moment it was over, America wanted to sweep it under the rug,” Washington reminded us. For two weeks, television viewers were forced to listen to raw talk about gender, race, and access to political power. “The film is saying ‘These are important conversations, let’s keep having them.’” The audience thundered applause.

Of course, huge leaps in social justice and behavior modification have happened in the last 25 years. Back then, nobody knew the term sexual harassment, except maybe as an arcane legal term. Today, employees and bosses go through sexual harassment training and face tough case law if they violate the present codes.

But Quinn is honest about the long shadow of guilt and shame. “I still feel humiliated. Even when I tell this story to young women today, their first question is: ‘Why did you let him get in the cab?’ They see it as my fault!”

Washington connected with the sympathetic audience of mostly women: “The idea that it’s ok to blame yourself for sexual assault is still something we need to talk about.”

“If I let my fears silence me now,” Hill wrote, “I will have betrayed all those who supported me in 1991, and those who have come forward since. More than anything else, the Hill-Thomas hearing of 1991 was about finding our voices and breaking the silence forever.”

The silence now is Clarence Thomas’s. He has spoken in court on only one occasion in the last ten years.

Watch the complete panel “The Lasting Impact of Anita Hill” here.