Anita Hill was a relatively obscure law professor until she was asked by Senate staffers about her time at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission with Clarence Thomas, who had just been nominated to the Supreme Court.
Twice, she turned them down, NPR reported. Then she told them that he had repeatedly sexually harassed her. Hearings were held before the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which the accusations were never brought up and they ended two weeks after Hill spoke to reporters. Then Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy “urge(d) committee Chairman Joseph Biden to take action,” and Biden initiated an FBI investigation. During what NPR reported as a “three-day investigation,” the FBI declared the accusations unfounded.
Then, the accusations hit the papers.
On October 6, NPR reported Hill’s accusations, leading to a firestorm of controversy. Called before Congress to deliver televised testimony on the harassment, the 35-year-old Hill’s life would never be the same as she endured blame, criticism and character attacks from an all-male panel of senators.
Joe Biden, who presided as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman during Hill’s 1991 testimony, has come under fire for his handling of those proceedings ever since. However, Hill recently told CNN that she will vote for Biden, given the alternative between him and Trump.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Hill’s Accusations & the Senators’ Responses Were Controversial
According to Hill, Thomas asked Hill to go out with him, “sought private opportunities to discuss his sexual prowess and his porn-watching habits, describing films involving group sex, rape and women having sex with animals,” Politico reported.
Here is an excerpt from the transcripts of her testimony:
My working relationship became even more strained when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex. On these occasions he would call me into his office for reports on education issues and projects, or he might suggest that because of the time pressures of his schedule we go to lunch to a government cafeteria.
After a brief discussions of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.
He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involving various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.
Because I was extremely uncomfortable talking about sex with him at all, and particularly in such a graphic way, I told him that I did not want to talk about this subject. I would also try to change the subject to education matters or to non-sexual personal matters, such as his background or his beliefs.
My efforts to change the subject were rarely successful …
For my first months at the EEOC where I continued to be an assistant to Judge Thomas, there were no sexual conversations or overtures. However, during the fall and winter of 1982, these began again. The comments were random and ranged from pressing me about why I didn’t go out with him to remarks about my personal appearance. I remember his saying that some day I would have to tell him the real reason that I wouldn’t go out with him.
He began to show displeasure in his tone and voice and his demeanor and his continued pressure for an explanation. He commented on what I was wearing in terms of whether it made me more or less sexually attractive. The incidents occurred in his inner office at the EEOC.
One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”
On other occasions, he referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal, and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex. At this point, late 1982, I began to feel severe stress on the job.
Some of the questions she was asked included one from Biden, who asked her, “What was the most embarrassing of all the incidents you have alleged?”
Alabama Senator Howell Heflin also said, “I’ve got to determine what your motivation might be. Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights? Do you have a martyr complex? The issue of fantasy has arisen; are you interested in writing a book?”
And Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson asked, “If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?” Even though Hill passed a lie detector test, Simpson suggested that she had passed because she was delusional, the New York Times reported.
Outside the hearing, some of the senators’ judgments of Hill were even harsher.
A 1991 New York Times opinion piece reported how some senators responded to Hill’s accusations:
… Even before she finished, Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona rushed to call his own news conference and say he believed the nominee’s denials and not the accuser. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah took the floor to say that, impressive as she was, “the facts do not line up on Ms. Hill’s side.” Senator John Danforth of Missouri, Judge Thomas’s chief patron, denounced her charges as “garbage.” And the Judiciary Committee chairman, Joseph Biden, said there was no reason to postpone tonight’s confirmation vote.
You can read the entire transcript here.
After her testimony, Thomas denied all the accusations and called them part of a “high-tech lynching.” His confirmation passed 52-48.
2. The Hearings Brought Awareness to an Issue That Had Largely Gone Ignored
Hill’s testimony came decades before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements of the 21st century, which have highlighted varying degrees of sexual violence incidents in the workplace, particularly as they pertain to men abusing their positions of power to harass and assault women.
Hill’s testimony also came at a time when sexual harassment was a relatively new topic of discussion in the public arena, even though women had been having such discussions behind closed doors for decades, as a Washington Post reporter wrote in a headline, “Women have always tried to warn each other about dangerous men. We have to.”
Also, as a New York Times opinion reporter wrote in 1991, Hill’s accusations came at a time when there was a wide gulf between how men versus women understood women’s reactions to sexual harassment:
Professor Hill explained why she nevertheless kept working for Mr. Thomas when he became chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (at one point he stopped his advances) and why she did not abruptly quit (she had no job options). Senators who find her behavior discrediting have something to learn about the realities of sexual harassment.
In their March 1981 issue, the Harvard Business Review reported on a study that found that 42% of nearly 700,000 women and 15% of 1,168,000 men described experiencing some form of sexual harassment.
The optics of the all-white, all-male panel questioning Anita Hill also brought a wave of diversity to the senate and a wave of awareness about sexual harassment into the average woman’s life, History.com reported.
Two dozen women were elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 and four women were elected to the Senate, bringing the total to six. Marcia Greenberger, the founder of the National Women’s Law Center, told History.com that after Hill’s testimony, “phones at the National Women’s Law Center began ringing off the hook.” That same year, legislation was passed offering victims of sexual harassment more legal recourse.
3. Biden Has Been Accused of Losing Control Over the Hearings
During the senate judiciary committee hearings for then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh (who was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford), Hill was once against thrust into the spotlight. Many compared the two hearings and questioned whether Joe Biden’s handling of Hill’s proceedings could have led to a much different experience.
Hill, according to CNN, said that she believed Biden lost control of the hearings. Biden disputed that, even though, as a reporter from The New Yorker wrote, “(Biden) set many of ‘the rules’ that damaged Hill and determined the over-all fairness of the process.”
Democratic senators and their staffers who were quoted in that New Yorker article agreed more with Hill’s assessment. Ohio Democrat Howard Metzenbaum was quoted as saying, “Joe bent over too far backwards to accommodate the Republicans, who were going to get Thomas on the Court come hell or high water” and Ted Kennedy’s advisor, told The New Yorker, “Biden agreed to the terms of the people who were out to disembowel Hill.”
Here were some of the complaints against Biden’s handling of the hearings:
Biden may have inadvertently tipped off the press. Before Hill’s accusations were public, NPR (which broke news on the accusations in 1991) reported that Biden said this to Republicans in front at least reporter:
“I believe there are certain things that are not at issue at all. … And that is his character. … This is about what he believes.” Speaking in warning tones, Biden added, “I know my colleagues, and I urge everyone else to refrain from personalizing this battle.”
Up to that time, there had been no public suggestion that Thomas in any way lacked good character. That made this reporter, sitting in the press box, curious.
Biden did not allow Hill to speak first. Hill told the Washington Post that Biden had told her she would be able to speak first, even though she was not. “So much of the strategy of the Republicans that unfortunately maybe Biden didn’t see through — or just didn’t feel empowered to control — was to control the amount of information that got out about me,” she said. “I was told by Chairman Biden that I would speak first. And at the last minute that changed … Because they wanted Clarence Thomas to do a preemptive strike against me.”
Biden tried to rush the hearings. Former Congresswoman Pat Schroder told the Washington Post, Biden had given his word to get the proceedings over quickly:
Schroeder: We went to see Biden, because we were so frustrated by it. And he literally kind of pointed his finger and said, you don’t understand how important one’s word was in the Senate, that he had given his word to [Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas’s chief sponsor] in the men’s gym that this would be a very quick hearing, and he had to get it out before Columbus Day.
Witnesses who should have been called were not. Angela Wright (who said she’d been sexually harassed and then fired), Sukari Hardnett (who told NPR that she had witnessed incidents of Thomas sexually harassing women) and other women who could have corroborated parts of Hill’s story were not called to testify before the committee. The Los Angeles Times reported that Biden made a deal with Republicans to read documents of the other women’s accusations, but not to actually call them before the Senate; later on, the paper reported, Biden’s “handling of the hearing (was) being criticized by some members of his own party as too soft in the wake of Tuesday’s vote confirming Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Biden seemed impatient due to insignificant issues. Vox reported how Biden started out his questioning of Hill by saying, “We will try to get a few more chairs, if possible, but we should get this underway … We may, at some point, Professor Hill, attempt to accommodate either your counsel and/or your family members with chairs down the side here. They need not all be upfront here. We must get this hearing moving.”
The Washington Post reported that a former Biden lawyer, Cynthia Hogan, did not name Biden, but summed up the complaints by saying that “Democrats” should have been better prepared for the attacks against Hill: “What happened is we got really politically outplayed by the Republicans. They came with a purpose, and that purpose was to destroy Anita Hill. Democrats did not coordinate and they did not prepare for battle. I think he would say that that’s what should be done differently.”
4. Hill & Biden’s Relationship Has Been Tense Over the Years
Biden’s statements – characterized as apologies by some and non-apologies by others – of how he handled the proceedings have varied over the years, leading the relationship between Hill and Biden to be incredibly strained. Both Hill and Biden made headlines when the New York Times reported that Biden had called Hill to issue what she described as a non-apology that left her feeling unsatisfied.
That was part of a trend in which Biden had expressed sympathy for what Hill endured but did not personally acknowledge how he – acting within his role – could have changed things.
For example, Biden told Time magazine that he wished he “could have done something” to ensure Hill got “hearing she deserved.”
In an appearance on ABC’s “The View,” Biden said he was sorry that Hill was “treated the way she was treated,” but did not apologize for his own actions, despite a prompt from Joy Behar to do so:
I believed her from the beginning, I was against Clarence Thomas, I did everything in my power to defeat Clarence Thomas … I’m not going to judge whether or not it was appropriate whether she thought (the apology) was sufficient, but I said privately what I have said publicly: I’m sorry she was treated the way she was treated, I wish we could have figured out a better way to get this thing done, I did everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules to be able to stop things.
One of Hill’s friends, Keith Henderson, told the Washington Post that he had always been disappointed by Biden’s inability to personally and directly apologize to Hill. “That’s where I fault him. He should just clear the air and clear his own conscience … I think he’s making another mistake in the way he’s handling the whole issue.”
In a Washington Post article, Hill explained why she felt that Biden’s attempt at an apology fell short:
(Washington Post reporter Libby) Casey: So, you know Mr. Biden just this week was asked at an event about his perspective on this and he said, “I believed Anita Hill. I voted against Clarence Thomas.” And then he goes on to say, “The only issue in the Anita Hill case was whether or not there could be information submitted in a record without a name attached to it anonymously accusing someone of something,” referring to other women. And he said that he’s confident that Thomas did sexually harass Hill and “Anita Hill was victimized. There’s no question in my mind.” Does that make you all feel any better?
(Anita) Hill: You didn’t read his full apology. He said, “I am sorry if she felt she didn’t get a fair hearing.” That’s sort of an “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
Casey: “The message I have delivered before is that I’m sorry if she believes that. I’m so sorry that she had to go through what she went through.” He also said, “Think of the courage that it took for her to come forward.”
(D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes) Norton: Some of that is a real mea culpa.
Hill: Some part of it. But I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened. And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.
Casey: So he says, “Anita Hill was victimized. There’s no question in my mind,” but I think the takeaway from a lot of women’s groups and members of Congress was that the victimization may have been twofold. Many people think that the victimization continued when you had to undergo this hearing.
Casey: So you’re not hearing an apology for that, though?
Hill: Or responsibility for it. That’s what I want to hear.
However, Biden’s perspective seemed to change.
When he was interviewed by Robin Roberts of Good Morning America with his wife Jill at his side, and he said, “As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that.”
5. Hill Now Says She Will Vote for Biden
Hill acknowledged some of the outreach to women Biden had pursued over the course of his political career, including his championing of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. He also famously persuaded Carol Moseley-Braun, one of the first African American female senators in U.S. history, to join the judiciary committee, according to the Washington Post.
According to a CNN article published Saturday, Hill has said that she is now willing to work with Biden on issues of gender equity and sexual violence. She also said that she is glad he took personal responsibility for how she was treated during her testimony:
Notwithstanding all of his limitations in the past, and the mistakes that he made in the past, notwithstanding those — at this point, between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I think Joe Biden is the person who should be elected in November. It’s more about the survivors of gender violence. That’s really what it’s about. My commitment is to finding solutions, and I am more than willing to work with him.There was a statement about “I take accountability; I hold myself responsible for the way the hearing was run.” And so that, I think, is as close as we’ve gotten, you know, and that’s good. That’s an opening.I want the next president to be somebody that I can go to and talk about the real issues that women, men, and non-binary people are experiencing with violence in this country, that’s directed to them because of their gender. I believe that Joe Biden would be that person. I do not believe that Donald Trump would be the person who would hear me.
When asked by CNN’s Gloria Borger who she would like to see elected in November, Hill did not hesitate: “I think Joe Biden is the person who should be elected in November,” she said.