Anita Hill’s 1991 appearance at Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings on the Senate floor was a historic moment. At the time, Thomas was a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, and Hill was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Hill alleged at the time that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she was in her mid-20s and worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male panel, which then questioned her with prosecutorial zeal.
Thomas denied the allegations and called the proceedings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” He was confirmed 52–48.
Architects of Hill’s testimony included five current and former Democratic lawmakers who supported her: Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Pat Schroeder (Colo.) and Louise M. Slaughter (N.Y.).
They convinced their colleagues — including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) — to allow Hill to testify.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual-assault scandal, Biden has faced renewed scrutiny over Hill’s treatment during the 1991 hearings.
At an event hosted by Glamour magazine on Nov. 13, he said he was “so sorry” for what she went through.
A few days later, at a gathering set up by The Washington Post Magazine, Hill said “some part of” Biden’s recent remarks was a real apology, “but I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened.”
Below is a conversation between Libby Casey, a reporter at The Washington Post, the five female lawmakers and Hill, who is now a professor of legal history and public policy at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The Washington Post invited Biden, but he declined. Thomas also declined to comment.
What follows is a transcript — condensed, edited, annotated and reordered for clarity — of the exchange. Mikulski, then in her first term as a Democratic senator from Maryland, picks up the story in June 1991.
Mikulski: So Thurgood Marshall resigns. George H.W. Bush nominates Thomas on July 1. We’re in recess. It’s a sleepy time. The Senate starts the hearings September 10. They’re sleepy hearings, and Thomas is very evasive about equal protection under law — the gender aspects of the Civil Rights Act. So a lot of us began to have doubts about Thomas.
The country first learned about Anita Hill’s allegations on Oct. 6, when Newsday and NPR broke the story. Hill gave a televised news conference the next day. On Tuesday, Oct. 8, a group of women lawmakers started making one-minute speeches on the House floor demanding the Senate delay Thomas’s confirmation. Then, Schroeder, Norton, Lowey, Slaughter, Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.), Barbara Boxer (a congresswoman at the time and future Democratic senator from California)and the late Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) decided to try something else.
Schroeder: As I recall, a group of us walked in, and you know how you can do the one-minute speeches on the floor? So we each got up and we’re doing them. And that then inspired us to go over to see the wonderful Senate, because they were having lunch as they always do on Tuesday. So we marched over there to go see them, because we were dumbfounded.
Norton: It was so spontaneous.
A photographer captured several of the congresswomen marching up the steps of the Capitol on their way to try to speak to Senate Democrats at their caucus lunch.
Casey [holding up the photo]: So this is such an iconic photo for so many people — all of the women marching.
Slaughter: We think it’s sort of like Iwo Jima. [laughter]
Slaughter: Because we weren’t going to be turned.
Schroeder: Storming it.
Slaughter: We were not going to give up on this. We knocked on the door.
Lowey: They did not let us in. They were so rude.
Schroeder: We were literally told that they didn’t let strangers in.
Mikulski: I’m the only Democratic woman in the Senate. I didn’t know they were marching over. There’s George Mitchell, our Democratic leader, and somebody hands him a note and he says there are congresswomen outside. They want to speak. I said let them in. Others were saying okay.
Schroeder: Barbara, since we weren’t in the room and you were, was there any discussion in the room about what was going on?
Mikulski: The phones were beginning to ring. There was a sense that the whole process, if not spinning out of control, was getting very chaotic. My voice was, “You don’t get this is really going to be big. You need to meet with the women. Slow down the damn process.” There were others saying, “Yeah.”
Mitchell agreed to meet with the lawmakers in his office.
Slaughter: We didn’t even sit down. We stood up in his office and made ourselves perfectly clear. He was pretty angry.
Schroeder: He explained to us how it worked in the Senate and that you defer to your chairman, and we had a very fine chairman.
Casey: In Senator Biden.
Norton: And it shows the extent to which the Senate is a club, but it was a boys’ club.
Hill: Can I just say this about Senator Mitchell’s approach? It may have been an opportunity to meet, but, throughout, what I found in the entire procedure was, “Let’s triage.” Let’s control, let’s keep things under control, under his control with the entire Senate and with the Judiciary Committee. It wasn’t about, “Let’s give an opportunity to be open and transparent.”
Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader, now in private practice, responded in a written statement to the comments by Hill and the lawmakers. He wrote, in part: “Unknown to the House Members, early that morning Senator Biden had asked me to try to get the agreement to vote on [Thomas] that evening changed, to allow time for further hearings and for Ms. Hill to testify. I asked for such a change, but Republican senators refused. That’s where things stood as of the time of my meeting with the House Members. I was careful in my response to them because it seemed unlikely that we could get a delay. As soon as the meeting concluded Senator Biden and I resumed our effort and spent the rest of the day working to devise and implement a strategy to obtain a delay. Ultimately we succeeded. The Republicans agreed to the delay and to further hearings.”
Casey: Professor Hill, did you have any idea that all of this was happening in Washington?
Hill: No. I read the newspapers the next day and saw the photo. That was the first time I knew. I was sitting in Norman, Oklahoma, still waiting to find out what was going to happen in the next few days. Really the first real contact that I had with an elected official was a call from Biden saying that there was going to be a hearing.
Slaughter: We’d never seen Anita until the hearing.
Hill: I didn’t just spring up in October. The Senate Judiciary Committee had been contacting me.
Slaughter: When did they call you?
Hill: They called the first time maybe as early as July. But certainly they had called by August. I didn’t want to be part of some kind of fishing expedition with some vague question that they had asked me. And I said, “You’ve got to be more specific.” And when they first called, I thought, “Well, there probably are other women and they should invest in pursuing these other women,” because, you know, they didn’t have any idea of what was going on. And they didn’t really seem interested. They only seemed interested in pursuing me. And it was in August that they finally came forward and said, “Well, we understand that you had experienced this behavior.”
Norton: Who told them about you?
Hill: I do not know. I said, “Okay, yes, I will respond to your questions, but I want an investigation.” When the Senate Judiciary Committee started going to the press, they made the claims that I had called up anonymously.
Schroeder: Oh, that’s right! And they called you.
Hill: I will say this: If it had been up to the Senate, I would not have even had a written statement. Because what they wanted to do was to use the FBI to do the investigation and then the FBI was going to report. And I said, “I will agree to an FBI interview, but I want to do my own statement.”
Norton: Did they say you couldn’t?
Hill: No, they didn’t. But they certainly hadn’t invited me to. So I wanted to be on the record. I wanted it to be in my words. I didn’t want it to be filtered through the FBI.
Hill arrived in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 9, and huddled with a small group of legal advisers — including Emma Jordan and Susan Deller Ross of Georgetown University and Charles Ogletree of Harvard — to prepare for the hearing.
Hill: We understood that this was a big moment in terms of the issue of sexual harassment, but also we understood that there was a direct relationship between what I had to say and his competence and fitness to sit on the Supreme Court. You’re talking about somebody who is going to be making decisions on these kinds of cases and who now has exhibited the same behavior that he’s going to be judging.
Norton: I was in the room with Professor Hill and some of her lawyers, and the reason I was in the room is because as chair of the EEOC I had promulgated the guidance. Before I came to the EEOC, it was not clear that sexual harassment was a violation of Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That guidance was subsequently confirmed by the Supreme Court.
Hill: This was a big moment that I literally had one day to prepare for. I traveled one day. I got in from Oklahoma. I was mostly sequestered except for that day going into the conference room with these other attorneys. For a day it was just them sort of prepping me: “These are the kinds of questions that you can expect to be asked.” There was some element of a trial that they prepared me for, but nothing like what was coming from the members of the committee — particularly Alan Simpson and Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter in terms of the cross-examination.
On Friday, Oct. 11, Thomas testified first, followed by Hill. Thomas testified again that evening and the following day. Schroeder and Slaughter attended in person. The morning of Oct. 11, they were not sure whether Hill would testify and felt the process was being rushed. They spoke to Biden.
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.
Slaughter: We had a serious discussion that this had to happen.
Schroeder: It was really, really ugly.
Danforth did not return messages seeking comment. According to Mikulski, the venue for Biden and Danforth’s apparent agreement — the gym — played a notable role in the life of the Senate.
Mikulski: Remember what gym you are talking about. You are talking about the United States Senate gym.
Mikulski: There are two women there. [Kansas Republican Nancy] Kassebaum and — do I look like a gym rat to you? [laughter] So the whole point of that is that’s where they do a lot of their conversations. I never — I went to the gym once to look around. I felt like they were taking me to a gulag or something.
Casey: It wasn’t your place to hang out.
Mikulski: That’s the negative part. The other part is that’s where they often do the bipartisan stuff.
Casey: Okay, there can be some benefit there.
At the hearing, Hill sat alone at a table in front of a long row of white male senators.
Hill: Even if somebody had been sitting at the table with me, nobody could speak but me, and the chairman was not controlling what was going on. So it was worse than being put on trial, because in a trial you’ve got legal protections. In the hearing, there was none of that.
Casey [to the lawmakers]: Did you attend the hearing?
Lowey: I found for me that is the memory I had that I will never forget, sitting there and looking at the faces of the men questioning. They were just blank faces I found.
Casey: Were you surprised by the lack of Democrats on the panel providing that voice you were hoping for?
Schroeder: Yes, we were. Absolutely. I mean we were just stunned at our [makes air quotes] liberals that were on the Judiciary Committee.
Slaughter: I remember Alan Simpson talking about all that stuff coming across the transom in his office, some awful things about Anita.
Hatch did not return messages seeking comment. Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming who is nowretired from the Senate, defended his role in the hearings in a phone call with The Washington Post. “If it was a trial, it was a good one, one by their own party,” he said. Biden, he recalled, “did about the fairest job I can ever imagine” as chairman.
Simpson said he sees a difference between Hill’s claims and physical assault. “Not once, at any point, did he force himself upon her, did he try to kiss her, try to molest her, touch her physically — not once.” However when asked if Hill’s testimony described harassment, Simpson said, “To her it was. If that was sexual harassment to her, I don’t know if it matters to anyone else. . . . Andit opened the door to protection for women against sexual harassment.”
The former senator also said that he and Hill had since spoken and “made our peace.” Responding to Slaughter’s comment, he said, “Louise Slaughter has been after my tail for years! All those gals were doing it. They ripped into Biden, they ripped into me. It was a force.”
Casey: So that was a Republican senator. But also, the Democrats. Did you leave the hearings with a sense of feeling angry, feeling defeated, feeling confused even?
Schroeder: I felt very angry, very confused.
Mikulski: With the traditions of the Senate and the committee, Biden thought he was going to conduct a hearing, but the Republicans knew — led by Arlen Specter — that they were going to conduct a trial. And Professor Hill would be the one on trial.
Schroeder: And they let them do it.
Casey: I want to also mention the human element of this, too. Because the chairman kept changing the timing of when you would speak, your family wasn’t even in the room when you began. They were outside, so you were really alone. You’ve talked about how telling the world this and experiencing it are two of the most difficult experiences of your life.
Hill: Yes, it was the most difficult moment.
Casey: You were saying things that would embarrass me to say to anyone, much less my mother.
Hill: The day when we were preparing, they said, “You’re going to have to be explicit.” And the first thing that I thought of was my parents. They were 79 years old. They had lived their lives on this farm in Oklahoma. My father had never even been to Washington, D.C., and they didn’t really know anything about this process. They were just good people who were getting sucked into this. I hadn’t told them about my experience. And so when I told them that I was coming, I told them there are some things that you don’t know and it’s going to be difficult. But I have to say I was so proud of them. When they came into the room was the moment when I knew that I could do this because they never wavered.
b So you found it fortifying for them to be there?
Hill: Absolutely. I knew they were going to be shocked and that they were going to be hurt that I had had to experience it. Not only the second time in the hearing but that I had had to go through this. I’m the youngest of 13 children. And so much of not only my parents but all of my older brothers and sisters, some of whom grew up in the Jim Crow South, they had to sort of put so much into me and my success and they believed that I had really made it. You don’t want to tell them, “No, it’s not wonderful.” You want to sort of protect them from that, because they need to believe that all of their work was worth it. There were a whole lot of factors that went into making it not just a public hearing. I’ll just say two things about that though. First of all, that public hearing would not have happened had it not been for these women in the room with me today. The other thing that I will say is that even though it was terrible to have a public hearing I am so glad it happened as a public hearing. Because I can only imagine what they would have done in private.
Norton: If they had had an in-house hearing.
Hill: Or even if they had never allowed me to speak at all, they could have attacked me, ruined my reputation. The story was already out there.
Casey: And this way America got to see you.
Hill: And at least they got to see me. 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. I was told by Chairman Biden that I would speak first. And at the last minute that changed.
Casey: And why is that significant in terms of the message?
Hill: Because they wanted Clarence Thomas to do a preemptive strike against me.
Norton: You are hearing the rebuttal before you hear the accusation.
Hill: And no way is that ever appropriate in any kind of fair process. In fact, they were pushing to get me to release my statement even before I testified so that he could rebut it point by point even before the world saw me. That’s the same thing that happened to the other witnesses. Angela Wright came forward to say, “The experience happened to me.” Sukari Hardnett. Rose Jourdain. Three women who had worked at different times than I had at the EEOC came forward. Clarence Thomas was able to attack Angela Wright. Claimed that she was a disgruntled employee. She never even got to testify to defend herself.
Angela Wright, Rose Jourdain and Sukari Hardnett had also worked under Thomas at the EEOC. Wright said Thomas made inappropriate sexual comments to her and Jourdain corroborated Wright’s account. In an affidavit, Hardnett said, “If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive and worked directly for Clarence Thomas, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female.” Thomas during his testimony said he had fired Wright. The women’s statements were entered into the record, but they were not called to testify.
Slaughter: That was a terrible thing that the corroboration was not there.
Hill: Well, I had the four witnesses that I had talked with at the time about the abuse. They did testify. Over the weekend, not in prime time.
Casey: Were you all blown away by her ability to stay so calm?
Schroeder: The Republicans were just so out of control. She was totally being fire-hosed and she was remaining totally calm.
Norton: It seemed impossible that a young woman who had never been in the public eye could come before essentially the power structure of the Senate.
Hill: And the presidency.
Norton: Yes, and unwaveringly present her own case and say, “Take that.” The room silenced when she finished speaking. Was hushed while she was speaking.
On Oct. 15, the Senate voted 52–48 to confirm Thomas to the Supreme Court.
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?
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.”
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.
Norton: Well, she needed to undergo the hearing. She needed to speak out, but this process —
Hill: But you cannot just bring people forward into a process where you know they’re not going to be treated fairly. That’s not being heard. That’s something that we are struggling with right now. Women are coming in to make a complaint, and the process is unfair and employers are saying, “Well, we have a process.” Well, that’s not enough.
Casey: Senator Mikulski did bring up an important thing, the power of the media. So let’s hear what you have to say on that.
Mikulski: The power of visual media. When this dignified, brilliant woman was trying to tell her story, the women of America believed you. And then she was being harassed by the United States Senate, the picture of the all-white guys — that caused stories. People calling, crying on the phone, saying, “You know it happened to me when I was a law clerk or whatever.” And so on. Our phones were deluged. And the men were getting these same phone calls. And then their wives were telling them about what had happened to them. Their daughters were telling them. But to come back to the media, when they saw the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in their interaction with Professor Hill —
Casey: That led to the year of the woman.
Mikulski: Don’t get mad, get elected.
In 1992, 24 women were elected as new members to the House and four to the Senate, more than in any previous decade. Many cited anger over Hill’s treatment during the Thomas hearings as a reason for running.
Hill: There’s another media part to this. During the hearing, the coverage was really the Washington press corps, and they had a political angle that they were following. And I think that’s important to know. They were asking questions like, “Who supported her? Who’s behind her? What group is she associated with?” That was the way that they were telling the story.
Mikulski: And the way they think.
Hill: They also had the benefit of Republican senators who were feeding stories to the media. And the White House — that machine was going on. But then afterwards the media shifted to talking about sexual harassment in the workplace. And I think that was a segue into the year of the woman, because then that story started to be about women’s experiences and how they were not being represented in Washington, D.C., by these guys.
Casey: Professor Hill, did you have that takeaway at the time? So you go home to Oklahoma and Clarence Thomas is confirmed. Do you have the big picture perspective yet?
Hill: No. I didn’t have the year of the woman in mind. I wanted to just go back and teach my classes and get my life back.
Norton: The year of the woman surprised everybody. Yes. Because we more than doubled the number of women in the Senate. Of course, there were very few to begin with.
Schroeder: After the year of the woman, there are all these women getting sworn in. And they’re about 10 percent. Big deal, right? But anyway, one of the old bulls came over and said to me, “Well I hope you’re happy, Schroeder.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “This place looks like a shopping mall.” And I said, “Where do you shop?” [laughter]
Casey: So Professor Hill, as you reflect on this time, have things evolved?