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- October 28, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 16
She Could Not Keep Silent
Anita Hill's Challenge to Clarence Thomas—and the Nation—Grew Out of Convictions Formed by Her Oklahoma Upbringing
Given that background, the country watched with a certain awe as this reserved young woman, a professor of commercial law at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the Antioch Baptist Church in Tulsa, accomplished what no amount of rhetoric had done before. During seven hours of riveting testimony, delivered under the glare of television lights in a Senate hearing room, she single-handedly transformed the ugly subject of sexual harassment into the major political topic of the day. While for many Americans the jury is still out on Anita Hill, the issues she raised seem destined never to be viewed the same way again.
In the end, of course, she failed in her immediate objective. Her accusations against Clarence Thomas freighted the debate with emotion but did not derail his nomination to the Supreme Court. At the conclusion of the long, tawdry hearings—complete with the now-infamous references to bestiality, pubic hair and a porno star with the colorful name of Long Dong Silver—it seemed obvious that neither Thomas, 43, nor Hill, 35, would be able to prove their cases conclusively.
But in a strange way, the reaction to Hill's charges—she was accused by Thomas's supporters of character flaws ranging from outright dishonesty to erotic fantasies—dramatically demonstrated the daunting problems faced by ordinary women seeking to fight sexual harassment. Their stories—when they choose to risk telling them—ignite no Senate inquiries, are often dismissed out of hand and may take years to adjudicate, at a terrible personal cost (see following pages). Even in the case of Hill, a tenured professor, friends worried about the consequences of her actions. "The personal toll is short-term. It comes in the form of exhaustion and assault by the media," says Harry Tepker, a fellow law professor at the University of Oklahoma. "The professional toll consists of a shadow over her career."
Hill has never styled herself as a martyr. The youngest of 13 siblings—she has a sister who is now 63—Faye was taught the value of religion and education by her parents, Albert, 79, and Erma, 80. (Four of the Hill children, including Faye, were valedictorians of their high school classes.) Though bookish, Hill was popular at Morris High School. She had a wide circle of friends, many of them white, at a time when integration was still a novelty in Oklahoma. She participated in a variety of high-school activities, including the Future Homemakers of America. "It's where we learned to sew and cook and be neat little ladies," says Susie Clark, who went on to room with Hill as an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University and is now a teacher in Morris. "It was fun."
At OSU, where she majored in psychology, Hill devoted herself to her studies and graduated with honors in 1977. During her three years at Yale Law School (which she attended on an NAACP scholarship), she lived off-campus and had a long-distance relationship with a man she'd met at OSU. "Faye was never a party animal," says one close relative. "She would have a glass of wine, but I never knew her to go overboard socially." It was much the same when she worked briefly at a Washington, D.C., law firm in 1980-81 before taking a job with Thomas at the Department of Education, where she says the harassment began. Immersing herself in her work, first at Education and then as Thomas's Special Assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission starting in 1982, she impressed people she encountered as extremely serious—sometimes to a fault. In testimony, some of Thomas's backers painted an unflattering portrait of Hill, depicting her as aloof, arrogant and opinionated. "She was a relentless debater, and she was the kind of woman who always made you feel that she was not going to be messed with," said J.C. Alvarez, a former colleague at the EEOC. "She always acted as if she was a little bit superior to everyone, a little holier than thou."
Certainly it is safe to say that Hill, who kept in touch with Thomas long after the alleged harassment, is not lacking in ambition. She is also a stickler for protocol and probity. But her reserve, says Osborne Reynolds, now a colleague at OU Law, is softened by a gentle sense of humor. At a recent student-faculty mixer, one new student made the mistake of calling Hill by her first name. "Anita said something like, 'Oh, please don't feel that you have to call me Anita,' " recalls Reynolds. " 'You can call me Professor Hill.' " Even those who have become close to her over the years often find there are limits to her openness. "Without her saying so, you can tell that she would be hurt if her privacy was too seriously breached," says an attorney who knew Hill socially in the summer of 1981. "I think that is one of the remarkable things about her coming forward. People just don't fully appreciate how much resolve it took for her to do that."
With last week's vote, Clarence Thomas realizes a dream and heads to the Supreme Court, while Anita Hill returns to the relative obscurity of the classroom. It is an open question as to how the two will deal with the trauma of the past month. Both have been profoundly changed, and profoundly pained. As Hill told the senators, "It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone except my closest friends." But the fact that she did has made it far easier for the rest of the country to address the issue of sexual harassment with a new frankness and understanding.
BETH AUSTIN in Norman and bureau reports
- Beth Austin.
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