Her life hasn’t changed much except for the mail. She gets stacks of it now—from 10-year-olds wanting autographs, from women with heartrending stories to share, from men who salute her courage. The letters, nearly all of them supportive, numbered more than 40,000 at last count. She is thinking of hiring a secretary to help answer them.
Nothing she writes in response, of course, can really answer in full. For when Prof. Anita Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October, unflinching in her testimony that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her 10 years before, she raised complex questions that go to the heart of Americans’ ideas about race and gender. What constitutes sexual harassment, and why didn’t the Judiciary Committee initially understand that Hill’s charges demanded to be taken seriously? How could any woman be spoken to as Hill claims she was and then maintain what she called a “cordial, professional relationship” with her tormentor for years thereafter? Why, according to polls, did a majority of Americans choose to believe Thomas rather than Hill? Is sexism still more acceptable than racism—and, in the absence of corroborative evidence, does a man’s sworn word invariably win out over a woman’s?
In the 35 hours that the hearings were televised, an estimated 30 million households watched, and questions like those were debated in living rooms all over America. Millions of women—including, we are told, Thomas’s own wife—sifted through their own experiences in the workplace and unearthed memories that resonate with Anita Hill’s anguished testimony about shame, humiliation, ambition and survival. Once Thomas was confirmed, many observers worried that future victims of sexual harassment would keep quiet—as Hill had for years—rather than face the chilly, scornful interrogation of an Arlen Specter or the innuendo-laden bluster of an Alan Simpson.
To date, though, the hearings seem to have brought useful changes. Corporations across the nation are stepping up their efforts to educate employees about sexual harassment, and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—where Hill says she was harassed by Thomas—calls requesting information on the definition of harassment have increased a hundredfold.
Back at her post at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, the 35-year-old woman who started it all is living quietly and privately, surrounded by supportive students and colleagues. She refuses most interview requests, but friends report she is doing fine. “I would think none of us could stand up to the kind of attention she’s been getting,” says Shirley Wiegand, a close friend, “but Anita can.”