Anita Hill Started A Conversation About Sexual Harassment. She's Not Done Yet

Sep 28, 2021
Originally published on September 28, 2021 9:38 am

In 1991, attorney Anita Hill testified that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and she worked there as an adviser to him.

Hill's testimony was unlike anything heard before at a Supreme Court nominee hearing. A committee of 14 white men, chaired by then Sen. Joe Biden, grilled her in a televised live hearing.

The Senate ultimately confirmed Thomas' nomination in a 52-48 vote, and Hill went home to a new life, condemned by many and facing death threats. Nevertheless, she has no regrets about stepping forward.

"I had important information about an individual who was picked to sit for a lifetime appointment on our country's highest court," she says. "It was not just a professional duty as a lawyer, but I believed it was my ethical responsibility to come forward in the best way and the most effective way that I could — and that's what I did."

At the time of the hearing, Hill felt isolated. But afterward she was flooded with stories of other people who had similar experiences.

"Hearing from them, just realizing that I was not alone in facing this kind of scrutiny and actual hostility, was affirming," she says.

Hill's testimony against Thomas — and the process by which nominees to the Supreme Court are vetted — were reexamined in 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford's allegations that he had sexually assaulted her in 1982.

Hill's new book, Believing, draws on her own experiences, as well as the stories shared with her by victims of sexual harassments and assault. She writes about laws related to gender-based violence and suggests how the Supreme Court confirmation process might be changed so that when women like her and Ford come forward, their allegations are fully investigated.

"Thirty years later, I'm here to say that even though Clarence Thomas was confirmed, I do believe that what I did was effective because it opened the conversation publicly in a way that had never been done before," she says. "I've heard from people whose lives have been changed because that conversation was open."


Interview highlights

Believing, by Anita Hill
Viking

On how her life has changed in the 30 years since the hearings

It's very, very hard to to sum up all the ways that my life has changed since 1991. I've changed my career. I've changed my location. I've actually changed my focus of work, outside of teaching, from sexual harassment in the workplace [and] employment discrimination ... I've expanded it to include other forms of gender violence, because I realized through interacting with victims and survivors that of all kinds of violence that are pervasive in this country that there is this interconnection between sexual harassment and, say, intimate partner violence, incest. I've heard from incest survivors, [survivors of] sexual assault and rape, street violence. All of [those] things ... are part of what I've been working on since 1991.

On addressing the systemic problems that made Justice Thomas' appointment possible

My concern is about the systemic problems that exist in protecting people who commit gender violence or misconduct. And so what I really want to focus on is, where is the process that we need to be in place that will fully vet judges and Supreme Court justice nominees? ... We have a process right now, as evidenced in 1991 and in 2018, that really is nonexistent. ... I'm not even sure we can call it a process. Neither Christine Blasey Ford nor I knew where to go with our complaint. A process, an effective process, would have clear guidelines about where an individual should go if they have information about a nominee. That didn't exist in 1991, and it doesn't exist now, as far as I know.

Hill doesn't regret testifying against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1991. "I believe there is victory in being able to come forward and state what has happened to you," she says.
Jennifer Law / AFP via Getty Images

On the hostility and death threats she faced in 1991 after her testimony

I remember one episode in particular where I was at home [on a] Friday evening, and I got a call from the dean of the law school saying that there was a bomb threat on my home. It just happened that that was a weekend where my mother, who was 80 years old and my sister and her three young children were visiting me, and we had to make a decision about evacuating the home, whether the threat was so clear that I needed to evacuate.

There were other vulgarities that came through in the mail, terrible, nasty materials. I'm talking about physical excrement, human excrement, I suppose. I don't know exactly what it was, but it came through the mail. Those threats that happened in 1991 were mostly in the mail. There were threats on the telephone. But I suppose today what happens is, with all of the social media and the different platforms for threatening folks, that the threats are actually even more vivid and more pervasive today for witnesses coming forward. We have not stopped that, and the uncertainty that's created by the systems that we have in place really helps fuel that.

On the lack of protections or clear process for her or Ford

I think what people don't understand is that there is a before-[the-hearing], during-the-hearing, and after-the-hearing problem. And what I think people assumed in my case, and perhaps in Christine Blasey Ford's case too, was that we just went home and everything was back to normal and nothing could be further from the truth, for each of us. What we need and what was really lacking was that the senators held this hearing, which put us really at risk of public blowback, but then offered nothing in terms of resources or guidance or statements to the effect that when we step forward, we were doing something that it was that was our right to do, and was, in fact, our civic duty to do to bring evidence to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On what Biden said to her when he called to apologize for the way he treated her during Thomas' 1991 confirmation hearing

I got my call from Joe Biden as he was poised to announce his candidacy, and what he said was that he was sorry for what had happened to me in 1991. ... He also said that, since 1991, he had been involved in efforts to protect women from violence, including the Violence Against Women Act, including action while he was the vice president in the Obama administration around violence on college campuses. There was a campaign that he was in charge of from the White House that engaged college students. Those were things that I was very grateful to hear him talk about.

What I didn't hear [Biden] say was that he clearly understood how his handling of the 1991 hearing had impacted people beyond me. - Anita Hill

What I didn't hear him say was that he clearly understood how his handling of the 1991 hearing had impacted people beyond me. I didn't hear that in his apology that he understood that the Senate Judiciary Committee's handling of my complaint in 1991 had been harmful to women throughout this country. He thought the affront was a personal affront to me, but it was really affront to all individuals who have had complaints and want to come forward and want the certainty or some kind of assurance that they can come forward and be treated fairly. It appeared to women as a model of how they could be abused by a system and that nothing would be done about it. It wasn't just the outcome of a confirmation or a vote, but it was the whole process that people found offensive to their sense of what the government has a responsibility to do to hear victims.

On the work that still needs to be done to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the workplace

It's never too early to start on this. When you look at the numbers themselves, just look at the numbers, the prevalence of the problem .... three of the last five U.S. presidents and two sitting Supreme Court justices have been accused of abusive behavior. The fact that we have the problem that is occurring regularly, almost every year, there's a new scandal in our military, then that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has done work recently to discover that there is a problem in our federal workforces and that's just the government alone. Then when you look at the private institutions, we realize that this is a problem that is systemic, that is pervasive, and that we need some leadership to address.

On if the appointments of Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh affected her faith in the courts

My faith in courts is still strong. Courts have an important role. I still think that the [Supreme] Court, though, is weakened when individuals on the Court are weak, and that's why I think it's so important for us to get these processes right, so that we can, in fact, get the best, most credible people on the Court. At the very least, we can do that.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Anita Hill. October 11 will mark the 30th anniversary of her testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Before a committee of all white men, Anita Hill testified about how Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she worked there as an adviser to him. Her testimony was unlike anything heard before at a Supreme Court nominee hearing. Here's Hill answering questions from Joe Biden, who was then the chair of the Judiciary Committee and was asking her to lay out her allegations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: What was that incident again?

ANITA HILL: The incident with regard to the Coke can that's spelled out in my statement.

BIDEN: Once again for me, please.

HILL: The incident involved his going to his desk, getting up from a work table, going to his desk, looking at this can and saying, who put pubic hair on my Coke?

BIDEN: Was anyone else in his office at the time?

HILL: No.

BIDEN: Was the door closed?

HILL: I don't recall.

BIDEN: Are there any other incidences that occurred in his office with just - in his office period?

HILL: There is - I recall, at least one instance in his office at the EEOC, where he discussed some pornographic material or he brought up the substance or the content of pornographic material.

BIDEN: And again, it's difficult, but for the record, what substance did he bring up in this instance in his - at EEOC, in his office? What was the content of what he said?

HILL: Well, this was a reference to an individual who had a very large penis, and he used the name that he had been referred to in the pornographic material.

BIDEN: Do you recall what it was?

HILL: Yes, I know. The name that was referred to was Long Dong Silver.

GROSS: The way Hill was treated made a lot of people think that it was Anita Hill who was being put on trial. She was accused of fabrication and erotomania. She received death threats. But her testimony was a wake-up call. As New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, who co-authored a book about the hearings, said on our show, many of us had experienced sexual harassment, but didn't really know the name for it or how to handle it, or that there was a way around it. By making her case and speaking so straightforwardly about it, Anita Hill educated the country.

Now, Anita Hill has a new book called "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence," drawing on some of her own experiences, legal cases and stories shared with her by victims of sexual harassment and assault. She writes about what's changed and what still needs to be changed. She's a professor of social policy, law and women's and gender studies at Brandeis University and an activist working against gender-based violence.

Anita Hill, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on the show. It's been almost exactly 30 years since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. You were a very private person at the time that you testified. You were not used to speaking in public. How have you changed since then? And how has your purpose in life changed since then?

HILL: Well, the closest thing that I had to speaking in public 30 years ago was speaking in front of a classroom. And, frankly, speaking in front of a classroom actually helped me in my testimony and has helped me evolve to what I hope is a better public speaker than I was 30 years before. It's very, very hard to sum up all the ways that my life has changed since 1991. I've changed my career. I've changed my location. I've actually changed my focus of work outside of teaching from sexual harassment in the workplace and loan employment discrimination - and, well, I shouldn't say I have changed that. I've expanded that include other forms of gender violence.

GROSS: You went into law because of the civil rights movement. Do you feel that, in its own uninvited way, that the Clarence Thomas hearings led you to find your purpose in life and your purpose within the civil rights movement?

HILL: I'd say yes. The hearings really moved me in that direction in a way that I hadn't expected, though. Because at the time of the hearing, I was teaching primarily commercial law and contracts. I did some teaching in the area of sex discrimination as covered by the civil rights laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that was not my primary teaching focus, and it wasn't even my primary research focus. However, I think it was the hearing and the combination of hearing from victims and survivors about their experiences that pushed me to look more deeply at how the law was, in many ways, failing them.

GROSS: So when you testified at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings 30 years ago, you said that he discussed pornographic material or that he brought up the substance and content of pornographic material, including involving women with large breasts and engaged in a variety of sex with different people or animals. You said he referred to a character who had a very large penis called Long Dong Silver. He denied those things. Did he also deny at the hearings that he had pornographic films or rented pornographic films at the time? This was the era where people rented movies.

HILL: You know, that question was not raised to him specifically, but I think there were inferences in his testimony that would suggest that his engagement with pornographic materials just didn't happen at all.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, who is a New Yorker staff writer and a frequent guest on our show, and journalist Jill Abramson wrote a book about the hearings that was published in the '90s, and they did a lot of investigation of their own. And among the things they found is that people who knew Clarence Thomas in college and after that said that he was an avid fan of porn and that he also had a large collection of Playboy magazines - not that there's anything wrong with that. But if Thomas evaded the truth or lied while he was testifying, I'm just wondering if you think there's a possibility that he perjured himself during the hearings while under oath.

HILL: Well, two things. First of all, I never asserted that Thomas did not have the right to view pornography. However, when it is brought into the workplace and discussed openly over the objection of the people in the room, and even without their explicit objection, it can create a hostile environment for those people who aren't interested in hearing about pornography as they're trying to do their jobs. The question of perjury - I can't say I'm up to date on all of the requirements to meet a question of perjury in the legal sense. But if one looks at the record and there is evidence of what he testified to was not truthful, then, of course, there can continue to be at least journalistic investigation into whether or not he committed perjury. But let me just say this. Just as Justice Kavanaugh has been protected from further investigations by the judicial system, Thomas will be protected from any investigation by the judicial system because they are now sitting as judges on the Supreme Court.

GROSS: So can you expand on what you mean by that - about how they would be protected?

HILL: Well, my understanding of the law is that sitting justices on the Supreme Court are not subject to scrutiny in the same way that judges sitting on the federal courts - throughout the federal courts are subjected to. In other words, a complaint against a sitting Supreme Court justice will not be investigated by the judicial system.

GROSS: Is there anything you'd like to see done to challenge Clarence Thomas' presentation of himself at the confirmation hearings? How troubled are you that he is now the longest-serving Supreme Court justice?

HILL: You know, it's - I'm so glad you asked that question because my goal in this book is to talk about the process of the Senate Judiciary Committee, how we are vetting judges to get onto the court. And I think that's the bigger question. My concern is about the systemic problems in protecting people who commit gender violence or misconduct. What I really want to focus on is, where is the process that we need to be in place that will fully vet judges and Supreme Court justice nominees from actually getting on the court in the first place? And that lies within the Senate.

We have a process right now, as evidenced in 1991 and in 2018, that really is - it's nonexistent, I should say. I'm not even sure we can call it a process. Neither Christine Blasey Ford nor I knew where to go with our complaint. A process - an effective process would have clear guidelines about where an individual should go if they have information about a nominee. That didn't exist in 1991, and it doesn't exist now, as far as I know. And if I don't know about it, I don't know how anybody would know about it who had that kind of information.

GROSS: What kind of process would you like to see? Have you thought about that?

HILL: Oh, well, first of all, you need to have clearly understood and public and transparent a complaint filing process. How do you report this? Who do you report it to? What's going to happen with the information once it's reported. All of those things need to be in a complaint process. The second really important element is an investigation, a thorough investigation that goes beyond the testimony or the statements of each individual, the person bringing the complaint and the person that they're accusing of misconduct.

GROSS: Yeah. So you can't just say, well, it's he said versus she said, so...

HILL: Absolutely. I mean...

GROSS: ...Let's just vote him in. Yeah.

HILL: And that's what we have now. And finally, you have to have a clear understanding of what the consequences are when evidence is thoroughly weighed and there is a conclusion that there's some reasonable belief that the complaints are truthful. We don't have any of that now. And therefore, we really are at risk of what happening in 1991 and what happening in 2018 happening all over again.

GROSS: Do you think women who come forward need to have some kind of protection? You got all kinds of threats, and Christine Blasey Ford had to actually move and basically go into hiding 'cause the threats became so bad. What kind of protection would you like to see for women who come forward?

HILL: Well, you know, this is - when I talked before about a process - just a basic complaint process, that's just the beginning because I think what people don't understand is that there is a before, during the hearing and after the hearing problem. And what I think people assumed in my case and perhaps in Christine Blasey Ford's case, too, was that we just went home and everything was back to normal. And nothing could be further from the truth. For each of us, what we need and what was really lacking was that the senators held this hearing, which put us really at risk of public blowback, but then offered nothing in terms of resources or guidance or statements to the effect that when we stepped forward, we were doing something that it was - that was our right to do and was, in fact, our civic duty to do, to bring evidence to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anita Hill, and her new book is called "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6 - LIVE PARIS 65")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Anita Hill. It's been 30 years since she testified at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings that he'd sexually harassed her at work. Now she has a new book called "Anita Hill Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence" (ph).

Can you tell us a little bit about what you experienced after you testified - what kind of threats that you had, hostility that you faced?

HILL: I faced death threats. And a threat to myself and my home is a threat to my family members. I remember one episode in particular where I was at home Friday evening, and I got a call from the dean of the law school saying that there was a bomb threat on my home. It just happened that that was a weekend where my mother, who was 80 years old, and my sister and her three young children were visiting me. And we had to make a decision about evacuating the home, whether the threat was so clear that I needed to evacuate. You know, there were other vulgarities that came through in the mail - terrible, nasty materials - and I'm talking about physical excrement - human excrement, I suppose. I don't know exactly what it was, but it came through the mail.

I mean, so we - those threats that happened in 1991 were mostly in the mail. There were threats on the telephone. But I suppose today what happens is with all of the social media and the different platforms for threatening folks that the threats are actually even more vivid and more pervasive today for witnesses coming forward.

GROSS: Did you have to, like, harden yourself, toughen your exterior in order to survive the kind of threats and hostility that you faced? You also faced a lot of love, a lot of outpouring of support and a lot of people who wanted to tell you about their stories, people who wanted your help or your reassurance or, you know, your legal help - all kinds of things. But what about facing the hostility and the threats - What did you have to do emotionally and psychologically to live through that?

HILL: Well, one of the things that I've learned very early on, since 1991, is that I am not alone. There was that sense of isolation during the time of the hearing that existed. But afterwards, hearing from others who had faced similar circumstances - maybe not as public, but privately faced those circumstances when they tried to complain - hearing from them, just realizing that I was not alone in facing this kind of scrutiny and actually - actual hostility, was affirming.

But I also - from - internally, I also knew that what I had done was the right thing to do because I had important information about an individual who was picked to sit for a lifetime appointment - a lifetime appointment - on our country's highest court. And that was my duty to do. But it was not just a professional duty as a lawyer, but I believed it was my ethical responsibility to do, to come forward in the best way and the most effective way that I could. And that's what I did.

GROSS: Did you feel at all like you'd failed because he was confirmed in spite of your testimony?

HILL: No. And that's the message that I want survivors today to get because people will tell them that if you - if your accuser is not prosecuted or if they don't lose their job, then you have failed in coming forward. I believe there is victory in being able to come forward and state what has happened to you if you have been abused. That is the start, really, of a conversation and a process that may not end in exactly the way that you think it should be ending, yeah. But 30 years later, I'm here to say that even though Clarence Thomas was confirmed, I do believe that what I did was effective because it opened a conversation publicly in a way that had never been done before and that - and I've heard from people whose lives have been changed because that conversation was opened.

GROSS: No, that is so true. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anita Hill. She has a new book called "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONIO ADOLFO'S "LUIZAO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Anita Hill. It's been 30 years since she testified at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings that he had sexually harassed her while she worked with him when he was the head of the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Now she has a new book called "Anita Hill: Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence" (ph). She has, among other things, become an activist against sexual harassment and all forms of gender violence.

You know, a lot of people thought at the time of the hearings, well, you know, Clarence Thomas didn't touch you. What's the big deal? He said some words. He said the word penis. He talked about large breasts. He talked about porn. He mentioned the film - Long Dong Silver. Like, what's so hard about that? What's your answer to that?

HILL: Well, first of all, that there are plenty of court cases now that says that that really is the basis for a hostile environment discrimination. And we should all recall that Clarence Thomas, as a matter of fact, was the head of the EEOC, the government organization in charge of enforcing rules against that behavior, that very behavior. So that is the big deal. The big deal really is that people come to work to do their jobs and to be as productive as possible. And coming to work in an environment where you are bombarded with sexual images, pornographic images, whether they're verbal or physical, does create that environment that people find objectionable and that takes away from their ability to work.

GROSS: What was your interpretation at the time when he was saying those things to you? Do you think he thought he was being funny, flirtatious, punitive because he - because you turned him down when he asked to date you? Like, how did you interpret it at the time?

HILL: Well, my interpretation at the time of what was motivating was that whatever was motivating him didn't matter. And what mattered was what I was experiencing and what I believe any number of other women might have experienced as well had there been a process that they had could have come forward to - and they would have come forward. You know, there were women even in 1991 who could support my testimony because they had their own experiences with this kind of behavior from Clarence Thomas. They were never called by the Senate Judiciary Committee to speak publicly about it. Their testimonies went into the record. But we never heard from them.

Again, I think one of the things that we get fixated on is, well, what was he thinking? And what that does is it takes away from us talking about how do victims experience the behavior with so much focus on, well, was he thinking about this, that or the other? We don't leave time to think to say, well, does that really even matter if someone is being injured? And, you know, clearly, I think that it doesn't matter. If someone who is in power is using their power in a way that is abusive to other people, it doesn't matter if they think it's a joke or if they think it's funny. If rational people can hear it and believe and understand that it is offensive, then that's where we should be focusing.

GROSS: In your book, you write a little bit about your phone call with President Biden when he called you to talk about the confirmation hearings. Can you just summarize for us what he said to you?

HILL: I got my call from Joe Biden as he was poised to announce his candidacy. And what he said was that he was sorry for what had happened to me in 1991. And I'm summing it up. He also said that, you know, since 1991, he had been involved in efforts to protect women from violence, including the Violence Against Women Act, including action while he was the vice president in the Obama administration around violence on college campuses. There was a campaign that he was in charge of from the White House that engaged college students. And so those were things that, you know, I was very grateful to hear from - hear him talk about. What I didn't hear him say was that he clearly understood how his handling of the 1991 hearing had impacted people beyond me.

GROSS: And what do you mean by that?

HILL: So I don't think that Joe Biden - or I didn't hear that in his apology that he understood that the Senate Judiciary Committee's handling of my complaint in 1991 had been harmful to women throughout this country. He thought it was - he thought the affront was a personal affront to me. But it was really affront to all individuals who have had complaints and want to come forward and want the certainty or some kind of assurance that they can come forward and be treated fairly.

The - it appeared to women as a model of how they could be abused by a system and that it would - and nothing would be done about it. It wasn't just the outcome of a confirmation or a vote, but it was the whole process that people found offensive to their sense of what the government has a responsibility to do to hear victims.

GROSS: So in the phone call with Biden, what did you say? What did you want to say?

HILL: Well, I, you know, I thanked him for the work that he had done. And I encouraged him to take a more prominent role that if, in fact, that he was elected as president or even as someone who was a former vice president, I thought that he could really take on a responsibility for perhaps undoing some of the damage that was caused by 1991, but more affirmatively to use his power as president to really acknowledge the prevalence and the persistence of gender-based violence in this country, to bring survivors and victims into the solutions of what is still going on in this country.

GROSS: Do you feel like he's done that?

HILL: I don't know of what those efforts are. I haven't heard of them. I think, clearly, he has a lot to do. And he has been quite busy. And that's...

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

HILL: But I do think that this is something that should be on his agenda. And I don't think it's ever too early to start on this. I mean, when you look at the numbers themselves - just look at the numbers, the prevalence of the problem, the extent of - the fact that, in fact, three of the last five U.S. presidents and two sitting Supreme Court justices have been accused of abusive behavior, the fact that we have the problem that is occurring regularly - almost every year, there's a new scandal in our military that the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has done work recently and discovered that there's a problem in our federal workforces. And that's just the government alone. Then when you look at the private institutions, we realize that this is a problem that is systemic, that is pervasive and that we need some leadership to address.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anita Hill. She has a new book called "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Anita Hill. It's been 30 years since she testified at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Now she has a new book called "Anita Hill Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence" (ph). She has, among other things, become an activist against sexual harassment and all forms of gender violence.

You grew up in Oklahoma, and you went to a middle school and a high school in a nearby town that was a sundown town. And a sundown town is a place where it's understood if you're Black and you're there after sundown, you're going to be in big trouble; you've got to get out. There were no Black residents living in that town. How did you end up going to school in a sundown town?

HILL: Well, it was the closest town to the farm that I lived on. I mean, so - it was - I was in that school district. That's where I went to school.

GROSS: What was it like to go there every day knowing that it was, like, historically hostile territory?

HILL: Well, you know, as a child, we didn't dwell on it. It was the way it was. And that's where we went to school. And fortunately, I went to a school, and I did well in the school. And, you know, I had teachers who supported me and my work at the school. You know, I don't think it was in front of mind, though, that it was a town that was hostile. It wasn't the only town that was hostile to Blacks living within city limits anymore than today, you know, we think about neighborhoods where Blacks are not accepted. We know this exists. But we still have to continue our lives, and we have to function, unfortunately, with that reality.

GROSS: Would you describe the farm you grew up on?

HILL: It was, you know, subsistence farming, as they say. We were never going to make a lot of money. We, you know, did our work - soybeans and peanuts, mostly - and those were mostly feed peanuts. These were not peanuts for - that people ate. But we had - you know, it was a family farm is what it was. And it helped us survive. We could eat and have, you know, clothing and have shelter because we were farming.

GROSS: You were the brainiac in school. You write this in your book. And you say that that helped protect you. How did it help protect you?

HILL: Well, I think it helped to establish me as, this is someone who was not as vulnerable. I think that was it. I think other people who might be perceived as more vulnerable might have gotten a different reaction than I did from their peers and maybe from their teachers.

GROSS: Your mother was a very private person, very reserved.

HILL: Absolutely.

GROSS: And you think you were that way, too, and that she basically, by example, taught you to be that way - but also told you, basically, don't share your business with other people; they'll use it against you.

HILL: Yes. Well, that's actually a quote from my uncle, her brother. But she shared that sentiment. And she was very private. And I have always been myself and continue to be. But you know, again, when I talk about the 30-year journey, it's not just a journey about where the country has gone in the last few years, but it's also my journey into being able to understand and advocate on these issues of gender violence. And that requires you to be more outgoing, and it requires you to be out in front more than taking a seat in the back and being less vocal. So that - I have overcome, to some extent, that desire for privacy.

GROSS: After the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, you had a big decision to make about whether to become more of a public person, more of an activist or try to resume the life that you had beforehand. What was that decision like for you? How did you make it?

HILL: Well, I made it, I think, in a number of ways. And it wasn't - didn't happen overnight. I mean, it's been, really, an evolution that's taken 30 years. And I think the book, "Believing," really is a culmination of that process. But one of the things that really was very helpful was a visit that I had to Spelman College where I was - I talked to two people, Lillian Miles Lewis, the wife of John Lewis, Congressman Lewis. She is now also deceased. But she convinced me that it was important for an African American woman with a platform that I had from the hearing to be as out front and vocal as possible. And I think she was also telling me that because, not only did I have a platform, but I had training as a lawyer and as a teacher to be able to be a unique voice in the space and to talk about the issues as an African American woman. I also talked with Andrew Young on that same visit.

GROSS: And what did he tell you?

HILL: Well, one of the things that he told me that has stuck with me in particular is that he understood the challenge of someone taking on a cause that they had not chosen on their own to take up. And that's what I was experiencing without even knowing that. But he named it for me. And so the two of them together, those two conversations, really shaped how I figured out through the years to evolve into the kind of advocate that is authentically me and is not trying to replicate somebody else.

GROSS: There are two justices on the court now who have been accused, one of sexual harassment, one of sexual assault. Has that affected your faith in the Supreme Court?

HILL: Well, my faith in courts is still strong. Courts have an important role. I still think that the court, though, is weakened when individuals on the court are weak. And that's why I think it's so important for us to get these processes right, so that we can, in fact, get the best, most credible people on the court. At the very least, we can do that.

GROSS: Anita Hill, thank you so much for talking with us.

HILL: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Anita Hill's new book is called "Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey To End Gender Violence." After we take a short break, our book critic Maureen Corrigan will tell us why she loves the new novel by Anthony Doerr, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "All The Light We Cannot See." This is FRESH AIR.

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