10/06/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
UNDER DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES, ANITA HILL'S TWO-car garage in Norman, Okla., might be crowded with life's usual leftovers—an old bike, say, and boxes of clothes. But ever since the former law professor went to Washington in 1991 to testify about sexual comments allegedly made by her former boss, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, every aspect of her life has been transformed—even her garage. There, in a row of black file cabinets, she keeps 40,000 letters mailed to her by strangers across the country. "People think they know me," says Hill, now 41. "I am a symbol of either something really, really bad or something really, really good."
To hear her tell it, serving as a reluctant point woman in the great war over sexual harassment has been a wrenching experience. Intensely private, she insists she testified against Thomas only after being pressured by the Senate Judiciary Committee; she says she never expected, or wanted, to become a household name or a political lightning rod. "I don't care where we go: Somebody recognizes her," says her friend Karolyne Murdock, a Norman banking executive.
Only now, years after the televised Senate hearings, is Hill finally coming to terms with her fame. These days she picks and chooses her projects carefully. When asked to represent Paula Jones, the woman who has accused President Clinton of sexual harassment, Hill declined, in part because she felt Jones's strategy would rely too heavily on publicity. But in 1995 she used her visibility to set up a college scholarship fund for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, to which she plans to contribute some of the profits from her new memoir, Speaking Truth to Power. In real life, she is a woman who enjoys shopping for antiques, running for exercise and who happens to hold thoughtful opinions about Washington, civil rights and the media. "I don't want to be thought of as a tragic heroine," says Hill.
Clearly the last six years have tested her mettle. In 1993, right-wing journalist David Brock's bestseller The Real Anita Hill painted her as the perjuring pawn of an anti-Thomas conspiracy. Last December, Hill gave up her job of 10 years as a tenured professor at the University of Oklahoma law school—in part, she says, because of unceasing conservative pressure on the university's Board of Regents. Although supporters raised $250,000 to help fund a professorship in sexual-harassment law in her name last year, the university, after protests by anti-Hill groups, has yet to fill the position. (Her private life too has been affected. Meeting men, says Hill, who is single, has become a challenge. "I think they're somewhat intimidated," she says.)
Still she remains proud of her Oklahoma roots. "I'm really a product of the hopes and aspirations of generations of people," she says. Raised on her parents' cotton-and-peanut farm in tiny Lone Tree, Hill was the second of 13 siblings to attend integrated schools. A brilliant student, she majored in psychology at Oklahoma State University and moved on to Yale Law School in 1977. After graduating, she worked at a Washington law firm. A colleague introduced her to another Yale Law grad, Clarence Thomas.
When Thomas was appointed to a high-level civil rights post in Ronald Reagan's Department of Education in 1991, he asked Hill to be his research assistant. Within months, she alleges, he was making sexual overtures, which she ignored until he stopped. According to Hill, the pattern repeated itself when Thomas won the top post at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1982, taking Hill with him. "Despite my concerns," she explains in her book, "I knew Thomas...was offering me job security."
A lifelong Democrat, Hill grew disenchanted with Reagan-era Washington and had returned to Oklahoma to teach when she learned of Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court in July 1991. She was urged to speak out by Senate staffers, who had heard of her alleged harassment, and remains resentful of her partisan interrogation. "There were no rules of appropriate evidence," she says. "It was a complete breakdown in the process." As a result, even today, says Hill's friend Shirley Wiegand, a law professor, "It's difficult for her to remain in Oklahoma. There are people who would like to see her humiliated."
Yet Hill has no desire to leave Norman, which is just two hours by car from the family farm where her parents still live, or to quietly retreat. "I now have many opportunities to weigh in on issues that I care about," she says. "I see how important it is to live a life where you are really committed."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Norman