Questions For. . . Anita Hill

1205519328Most of us remember Anita Hill as the young woman who testified against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his nomination hearings in 1991, bringing awareness to the issue of sexual harassment. Because of her openness and continued work for First Amendment issues, Hill has been named the recipient of the 2008 Louis P. and Evelyn Smith First Amendment Award, and will be the featured guest at the Ford Hall Forum on Thursday.

We talked to Hill about her testimony, this year’s presidential race, and how people view her 17 years after her controversial testimony.

Boston Daily: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We know you’ve got a busy schedule.

Anita Hill: Sometimes I look at my scheduling and say, ‘I’m not a good manager.’

BD: You manage your own calendar?

AH: Yes, pretty much. I don’t have anybody to fault but myself.

BD: Congratulations on receiving the Louis P. and Evelyn Smith First Amendment Award.

AH: It’s pretty exciting. I’m flattered and a little bit overwhelmed when I look back at the past recipients. It’s a great honor and I’m happy to be able to accept it.

BD: Some have said that you created an awareness of sexual harassment when you testified against Clarence Thomas. Did you think about that at the time? What motivated you to speak out?

AH: There are two aspects of what people say to me about the importance of that testimony. One is creating this awareness of sexual harassment. The other is the willingness of an individual to participate in a government process. Private citizens can be part of a process for people who are going to be appointed to public offices, particularly lifetime appointments. That was the role I was attempting to play.

My idea was that I had information relevant to the process. I was reluctant to come forward with it because the process had become politicized, but my decision to testify was based on my understanding that the information was appropriate and relevant to the decision being made.

BD: How did you feel when you went in there? I was about 10-years-old when you testified, but I remember thinking you must have been terrified.

AH: It was a bit overwhelming. I had been contacted by a staffer and asked specific questions, and rather than have my story filtered through the staff and people on the judiciary committee, I chose to give them a statement. I sent that in, and really nothing happened with it in terms of public airing. Then the statement was leaked.

I think I was very overwhelmed by the set of circumstances, and didn’t have time to be scared. There was no real experience I had had in line to compare it to, so that I don’t think I knew to be afraid or terrified. I don’t think I thought of it as a monumental experience.

BD: How to people approach you now that it’s been 17 years?

AH: Yesterday, I had an email from someone who I’ve never met that says he was impressed by the process, but that he appreciated what I did and what I was trying to accomplish. He thought it was courageous. Those kinds of things I hear even today from people I don’t know. They kind of come out of the blue.

I still get emails from people who disagree very much with that I did. Quite a few of those came in October when Clarence Thomas published his memoir. But what I get on a daily basis from people who are not responding to him, but responding to their memory of the event or after reading something about sexual harassment, is an appreciation of what the process meant to women.

BD: Is the feedback mostly positive?

AH: I get mostly positive, and I get it from a lot of men. I think there are people who relate to [the hearings] beyond an awareness of sexual harassment. I think they can relate to it along a number of a different lines, including civic participation. I think that people feel fairly alienated from government, and that’s why you get these high disapproval ratings for Congress.

I think that my being able to engage the senate and force them to deal with a real person was important to a lot of people. I think the issue of sexual harassment is one issue they relate to directly, but I think they are able to relate to it as an issue of equality generally, whether we’re talking about gender equality, or racial equality, or class, or the personal sense of justice. I think that the issue really transcends sexual harassment for a lot of people, which is why as many men as women are writing to me.

BD: Do you think the presidential election is helping to bring people back to politics?

AH: I hope so. Clearly, we’re going to get a new president, but I hope that it does reengage some people who have perhaps been so disillusioned and so alienated from the political process at the national level that they have not really gotten excited about anything or anyone in the past 20 years. I think that that can happen. I think how the next six months go will tell us if people think these campaigns are actually about them and their issues and concerns, or whether it’s really just about the candidates winning.

BD: Do you have a candidate you like?

AH: I like the Democratic Party’s slate. I thought it was a good representation of the diversity of the country. I thought it was a good representation of the diversity of the issues facing the country, and I am just pleased to be a part of witnessing that. I’m hopeful that we’re going to come out at the end with a candidate that we Democrats can support.

BD: When you testified, you had to deal with the media judging you as a woman making these statements. Do you think the media is treating Hillary Clinton fairly?

AH: I agree with a lot of the criticisms of the media in terms of how she’s been approached and some of the things that have been said about her are just outrageous. But I also think that it is so difficult to get to the issues of how gender impacts women daily through a presidential campaign. A presidential campaign’s goal is to get the person elected. That’s it. The way that the candidate will talk about gender issues is going to be entirely different that if she’s trying to educate the public.

The same is true of race. To have a real conversation about race or gender, it has to be outside the framework of elected politics. If Hillary Clinton [wins in November], I’d like her to deal with race issues as well as the gender issues, in a way that’s helpful to the population. If it’s Barack Obama, I would love for him to deal with both race and gender as well.

And I will say too that one of the things that neither of these two can really get to in this particular situation is the issue of how race and gender combine. It’s difficult for people to really understand that part of the conversation. Even when you asked the question of me about how the hearings brought forth the issue of my gender and the role that it played, you didn’t ask the question about my race playing a role.

I think it’s hard for people to even figure out what kinds of questions to ask when you’re dealing with an African-American woman, for example. Do you ask about race—do you ask about gender? Can they ever be separated when you’re talking about somebody who’s a woman of color? All of those things are still left to be discussed, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get to them.

BD: I think we will.

AH: Good! Good! I am happy to hear that from a young person.

BD: I hope so. I’d like to think that people are smart enough to vote on how they feel on the issues, not just on anatomy or color.

AH: I think we are beyond that. One of the things I found really peculiar when we talk about race or gender we don’t even talk about the Republican slate. Everybody on that slate had a race and a gender, but it’s as if those are invisible when you look at white men. We’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way to go, and I hope after this election is over, it will help us get there.

Anita Hill will appear at the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. for a Q & A.