EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 22, 2014

Anita Hill back in spotlight as film opens

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — NEW YORK (AP) — It’s been more than 22 years since Anita Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee in that famous bright blue suit — one she could never bring herself to wear again — to make the sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas that transfixed a nation.

And much has changed since then.

But not everything.

“I hope you rot in hell,” went an email that Hill, now 57 and a professor at Brandeis University, received just a few weeks ago from a member of the public.

After all this time?

“Yes,” Hill says, with a resigned air. “As they go, this one was fairly mild. But it happens. And it’ll happen again.”

Especially now. The soft-spoken Hill, who still speaks in the same calm, precise tone many remember from 1991, has for two decades been living a quiet academic life, occasionally venturing out to speak about sexual harassment but often declining interviews.

But she’s about to enter the maelstrom again with the release yesterday of a new documentary, “Anita,” by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Mock. After years of declining requests to collaborate on a film about her experiences, she said yes.

Why now?

Hill says she was inspired by the reactions she was getting from people as the 20th anniversary of those Supreme Court confirmation hearings approached — particularly in 2010, when news broke that she’d received a voice mail from Thomas’ wife, Virginia, asking Hill to “consider an apology.” (That voice mail opens the film.)

“People responded with outrage to that,” Hill says. “But even more, I realized that here we are 20 years later and the issues are still resonating — in the workplace, in universities, in the military. So if 1991 could help us start a conversation, how then can we move this to another level? Because clearly we haven’t eliminated the problem.”

Experts agree the problem surely hasn’t been eliminated. But many cite Hill’s testimony as a landmark event, in both social and legal terms.

Hill says that in her day-to-day life, “1991 just doesn’t figure in.” Case in point: At Brandeis, many of her students don’t even know about her past. Hill points out that her grad students were only children in 1991, and the undergrads weren’t even born.

“It doesn’t bother me,” she says. “It’s important to help them focus on what their learning objectives are, and not on me as a person.”

Hill says, before all this, she’d planned to build a career in international commercial law, perhaps in Europe. “It would have been a very different life!” she laughs.

A life, likely, without hate mail. Hill says the worst part wasn’t the actual hours spent testifying about painfully explicit matters, or when Thomas was ultimately confirmed to the Supreme Court, but what happened when she returned to her teaching job at the University of Oklahoma.

“I was getting threats,” she said. “People were trying to get me fired. Friends of mine were fired.” At the same time, she was getting bundles of letters of support from across the country. But the threat of losing her job felt more immediate.

Hill left the university in 1996, and landed at Brandeis soon after. In 2007, she was back in the news when Thomas wrote a book, “My Grandfather’s Son,” in which he described her as rude, a mediocre worker, a liar, and his “most traitorous adversary.” She wrote a New York Times op-ed piece saying she would not allow Thomas to “reinvent” her.