NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Clarence Thomas has spent these past 20 years on the United States Supreme Court. Anita Hill has largely avoided the limelight and concentrated on academic work as a professor of law and public policy at Brandeis University in Boston.
But neither will ever escape the hearings which began 20 years ago today, where the then-35-year-old law professor told the Senate Judiciary Committee of repeated sexual harassment by her one-time boss, which he angrily denied and countercharged that he'd become the victim of a high-tech lynching.
Now Anita Hill's produced a new book, not a rehash of the dispute but a look at gender, race and home in the history of Americans, including the history of her own family, a book inspired in part by the tens of thousands of letters she received after her testimony.
If you could write one of those letters to Anita Hill today, what would you say? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, NPR's new ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, but first Anita Hill joins us from our bureau in New York. Her new book is titled "Reimagining Equality," and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
ANITA HILL: Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure.
CONAN: And you cite the inspiration of those letters. Why did you keep them all these years?
HILL: Because they are personal. They are meaningful to me. They've inspired me at times when I really did not feel very good about the subject of equality. They've inspired me to keep pushing and to keep working and to keep really being myself.
CONAN: And there must be thousands of them.
HILL: There absolutely are thousands, and I must say that I'm continuing to get them, although I get fewer letters these days, and I get more now emails.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: I suspect you're not alone in that.
CONAN: What do some of them - I know you can't give us names because people haven't released them, but can you give us some examples of some of the comments that have inspired you to write this book?
HILL: Well, they're a surprising array of messages. And they vary depending on whether they're men or women, young or old. I hear from people who say, you know, I was a child during the hearings, and I didn't quite understand exactly what was going on, but 20 years later now I understand why the hearing was important and why your testimony was important.
And many of them are thank-you letters. Many of them tell stories about their own experiences in the workplace. And many say, you know, I found my voice in a number of situations, not all having to do with sexual harassment, but in situations where they felt powerless, they took inspiration from the testimony and became more empowered to challenge their situation.
CONAN: And with that background, with that emotional support - well, first of all, I have to say I suspect not all the letters are positive.
HILL: Absolutely no. They are not all positive, as one would suspect, given the fact that there was divided public sentiment in 1991, and I'm sure that continues today. But I do get negative letters, and I do read those, as well.
CONAN: I wonder, you were a pioneer. This issue had not been broached in subject before, and I wonder if a similar situation were to arise today, heaven help us, but if it did, do you think someone bringing these charges might be treated differently?
HILL: It's hard to look back and think about what would happen today without thinking about what happened 20 years ago. But I do believe that someone would be treated differently, but I'm not sure that it would have gotten to the point that it got in 1991.
If you'll recall, the Senate really didn't want to hold the hearing.
CONAN: They'd already held Clarence Thomas' hearings. It was all over. And then these new allegations emerged.
HILL: Well, the testimony that I was giving came in a second round of the hearings. The Senate, with Chairman Biden, was encouraged to reopen the hearings, and after being persuaded by a number of voices, women's voices from the public, they did so. Chairman Biden decided to reconvene to hear my testimony.
So, you know, I'm not sure that they would necessarily be that - you would necessarily have to have the Senate being told that they needed to hear the testimony that they would understand today why it's so important.
CONAN: The process has changed a little bit, too. So it's...
HILL: Yes, it's hard to imagine that there is anything now that doesn't get vetted when there is a nominee for the Supreme Court.
CONAN: Do you remember the woman who you were 20 years ago and a day ago?
HILL: Well, I remember the woman who - because I see the video. And - but I remember her, too. In so many ways, I'm really still the same person. But in other ways, I've actually grown quite a bit.
I've continued teaching, and so in that way I'm the same person. I've continued my work as an academic, although I have changed locations. I'm no longer at a law school. I'm teaching at a school of public policy, but I also - I teach law.
So if I had to say where is that - what's different about the woman that I am today in terms of - I think it's reflected in my writing of this book, "Reimagining Equality." I see "Reimagining Equality" really as having grown out of the experience of the hearing 20 years ago, my continued work on issues of equality and how I'm seeing it now in a different context, in the context of the mortgage meltdown and housing crisis.
CONAN: And you tell the story in the context of, well, not just your family but Americans, women and women of color in particular, and their stories through the period. I'd never heard it quite put this way before. You describe those who were liberated by the Civil War as the first Africans ever to be described as American citizens or as African-Americans.
HILL: Absolutely. When you think about that, and you think it really wasn't that many years ago, I think it wasn't that many years ago and particularly because my grandfather, who was born in 1864, was one of those first generations, and my grandmother, of course, was born a few years later, but that was the first generation really of African-Americans, people who could call themselves American legitimately, by law.
And so that was a critical moment for us to think about it is in the life of a people, really, you know, over - just a little over 150 years now. So those things have significance and help us think about us, the country, how much we have changed in just, for me, two generations.
CONAN: Two generations, really. It's remarkable. We're talking with Anita Hill about her new book "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home," inspired in part by letters she received after her testimony 20 years ago today - that began 20 years ago today.
If you could write one of those letters, what would it say? 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's begin with Gin, Gin with us from Orange Beach in Alabama.
GIN: Yes, am I on the air?
CONAN: You are on the air, Gin, go ahead, please.
GIN: Well, thank you very much for taking my call. I simply wanted to say to Ms. Hill it's a privilege to speak with you, and I heard you on Gwen Ifill. I thought you really accounted well for yourself. I'm one of the people that did not want to believe you at the time because I wanted to see Judge Thomas confirmed.
But over the years, as I've seen him sit on the high court and say nothing, and I've listened to you, for my part I realize that you were telling the whole truth and that he in fact was the villain. And I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the way you've conducted yourself. And I'll take any comments off the air.
CONAN: Gin, thank you.
HILL: Well, my comment to that is that in addition to my being able to tell the truth, and one of the reasons that the letters are so inspiring is that really, I can't count, but I would say maybe even millions of women throughout the country were able to tell the truth about their own experiences. And I would simply say to the caller that in fact I believe it was Jim or Gin, I couldn't quite understand.
CONAN: Gin, like the alcoholic drink, or at least how they spelled it on my screen.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HILL: Well, I would say to Gin that in addition to my story, hearing other people, members in your family, thinking about your - even perhaps if your mother was working outside the home, her experience, those all make up really the body of information that we've had since 1991 that has helped move us forward.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Catherine(ph), Catherine with us from Norman, Oklahoma.
CATHERINE: Yes, hello.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
CATHERINE: Thanks for taking my call. Ms. Hill, we own your home on Berry Road, and I am so proud that we have purchased that home, and we rent it to college students, and my husband and his sister are members of the Chickasaw Nation. They also teach at the law school. They're both lawyers.
The students have no idea, generally speaking, who you are, and they get a wonderful history lesson from us before they're allowed to rent the home, and I am so very proud that we own your home and so very proud of you and all the things that you have done for our country, for women and for everyone.
HILL: Well, thank you, Catherine. I miss that home. I miss Oklahoma. And in part that was part of that longing and understanding and really the feeling that I had for Oklahoma that came - sort of came to me as I was reading about the losses during the foreclosure and so many things that were happening that just reminded me of home.
And of course when I think of home, I think of Oklahoma. So I don't always think of college students occupying my home, but I'm sure it's great.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And I'm sure everyone one of them is neat as a pin.
HILL: They're well-behaved, I'm absolutely positive. They're Oklahoma students. They're well-behaved.
CATHERINE: And two of them are in law school right now, and it's a wonderful home, and I'm so proud to own that home.
HILL: Well, I hope that it brings them good vibes and success through law school.
CATHERINE: Well, I believe it will, and I thank you so much for everything that you have done.
HILL: Well, thank you, and keep giving those history lessons.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CATHERINE: Oh, I will. They learn a lot from me.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Catherine.
CATHERINE: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Anita Hill. Her new book is called "Reimagining Equality." She has received thousands of letters of the years since her testimony, from people she inspired. If you were to write such a letter, what would you tell her? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When Anita Hill stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee and testified that now-Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, the country watched rapt. She gave voice to the experience of countless women who had endured similar advances but kept silent.
In the year following her testimony, the number of sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission nearly doubled and continued to increase for years thereafter. As filings flooded into the EEOC, letters from people inspired by her flooded Anita Hill's mailbox.
If you could write one of those letters today, what would you write? Our number, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Anita Hill is with us from our bureau in New York. Interesting, we were just talking about your home in Oklahoma – Norman, where you went to school - but your people came to Oklahoma from Arkansas, and you write in the book that, well, in addition to African-Americans or Africans in America looking for home for 400 years, a lot of people left Arkansas for all kinds of places, including Liberia.
HILL: That's absolutely right, and let me just make one quick correction. I did not go to school at Oklahoma. I have a nephew, Eric(ph), who went to school there. I went to Oklahoma State, which is sort of the rival, friendly rival of Oklahoma.
CONAN: Oh, that's a terrible mistake to make. I am so sorry. And I'm going to hear about it, too.
HILL: But absolutely there was a migration of African-Americans from Arkansas, which is quite a large delegation, of families who left Arkansas and went to Liberia, and, you know, of course their descendents, many of their descendents remain there today.
My family moved from Arkansas and went west to Oklahoma, under some circumstances that I describe in the book, but to sum it up, it was that my grandfather, Henry Eliot(ph), was threatened with a lynching. And so he left his farm, took his family, and they all boarded a train and headed to what is now Wewoka, Oklahoma.
CONAN: And from there, it is where you eventually set out to go to be the first in your family to go to college.
HILL: Well, no, I was not the first in my immediate family. It was - my oldest sister, actually, Aretha(ph), was the first in our family to go to college. My parents, and particularly my mother, was really set on education. My sister now is in her 80s, and at the time that she went to college, she was from a rural family, we were living on the farm, and the money that was from the farm was stretched to actually send her to Langston University.
She - it was really a rarity in Okmulgee County, where we were growing up, for anyone, any female to go to college, and so I think that my mother was really quite a visionary.
I mean, she had this idea that her children were going to be educated and prepared for a world, and she really didn't understand or know what that world was going to be, especially not in the '30s.
But she knew that she wanted us to be prepared to have access to every opportunity there was, and she worked to make sure that that was true.
CONAN: One of the things you write about is that after the Civil War, many, including many African-Americans, thought that the most important institution would be marriage: That would cement their place in this country after all they had been through.
Then to some degree that fixation became centered on the home, on owning a piece of property, and that would cement people in a community and cement people in the country. And you write that in many ways, both of those have proved illusory.
HILL: But have proved illusory, beginning with, you know, when we talk about where did those ideas about the home being the focal point of our entre into citizenship.
Really it was an idea by Booker T. Washington that if African-Americans could just show themselves to be good homemakers and home builders that they could, in fact, prove themselves to be worthy of full democracy in the United States.
He believed that that was true, even that the home was even more important than laws. And in fact my grandparents, Henry Eliot, Ida Crooks Eliot, did in fact get that farm. They got 80 acres of land in 1895 and homesteaded that land. It was that farm and that land that they ultimately had to abandon for a number of reasons that sound very similar to some of the things that you hear today in today's news stories.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some more callers in on the conversation. Let's go to Mary(ph), and Mary's with us from Mishawaka in Indiana.
MARY: Hello, can you hear me?
CONAN: You're on the air, go ahead, please.
MARY: Okay, I would like to thank Anita for the huge difference it made, her coming forward made, in the huge difference between the way I handled being approached inappropriately in the workplace when I was 18 and the way my daughter at 18, 35 years later, was able to handle it.
She was completely confident in her right to say you're a pervert, get away from me. Her friends all agreed with the way she handled it. And this man who was at the time 45, about the age my co-worker was when I was 18, he didn't take no for an answer the first time, but after the second time, she threatened to go to the manager, and again she didn't have to feel like she was breaking any rules or like she was, you know, a rat or, you know, that she was square or anything else.
She felt like she was within her rights, and I credit that to Anita Hill.
HILL: Well, thank you. You know, one of the things that you pointed out earlier, Neal, was that in fact there was a rise in the number of claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. But one of the really important things that I find is that mothers were talking to their daughters for the first time.
And I love these stories about mothers and daughters. And I also get these stories about fathers and daughters, fathers communicating with their daughters and vice versa what it's like for women in the workplace and what their rights are and how they can, in fact, stand up for themselves.
MARY: You know, kind of the flip side of that is when I was in my mid-30s, I ran into the guy again. I had moved away and hadn't been back for a while, but I ran into him, and, you know, he recognized me. I recognized him, and I told him: Do you realize how you made me feel? You scared me. You scared me half to death. I was terrified every day to come to work because you were going to come up behind me and whisper these things in my ear and put your hands around my waist.
It was horrifying. That's why I quite the job. And, you know, he was astounded. He had no clue. He absolutely did not feel that what he was doing was wrong or evil or harmful or that it would make me feel negatively about myself or about my job. He absolutely was clueless.
CONAN: Did you talk to your daughter about it?
MARY: Actually, the subject itself never came up until it happened to her in the workplace, and by the time she told me about it, she had handled it. I mean, the whole atmosphere has changed. It's like Betty Ford and the alcoholism thing. When she came forward, it became part of the social structure that, you know, this is the way it should be, and gradually it has changed.
HILL: Well, since 1991, there have been - and people will talk about the political changes, they will talk about the legal changes, and those are significant, too - but the cultural change is really what I find astounding. And I...
MARY: (Unintelligible) socialization. Her friends were completely in agreement with the way she handled it, too. They all were of one mind. So it's pervasive.
HILL: And I am - I applaud her. I applaud her friends. But unfortunately, Neal, I am learning that the problems continue, especially with young women. I know of two studies in particular that are being done, one by the Shuster Institute at Brandeis and another by a center at Wellesley College.
There are studies now about the prevalence of harassment among teenagers, particularly young women when they start their first jobs. They may be 18, and many of them are much younger than that, 16, 17. It's their first job, and the kinds of situations that they are running into.
Women are still vulnerable, and at that age, you really don't know how to react or what to do, even though you react negatively.
CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Alan(ph), Alan with us from Alameda in California.
ALAN: Yes, hello. I would like to ask Ms. Hill to comment on the racial politics of the situation in the sense that do you believe, Ms. Hill, that there's a tendency now to select the safest token black person rather than the most qualified black person for a given job?
HILL: I don't really have any evidence that that's a widespread practice, but I do think that just in general, people are comfortable with people who look like them or they believe think like them. And I think we have a lot to do in terms of really giving people full opportunity in employment, whether - whatever their, you know, their - you think of them as safe or not. I think full opportunity in employment just does not exist today in the way that maybe I thought it would have when I was growing up in the 1960s and '70s. I really thought some of these battles and some of these issues would have been resolved by now.
And I really aggressively entitled my book "Reimagining Equality" because that's a process that I'm having to go through, like what is equality like today? How can we envision it in terms of the way people live every day as opposed to the abstract rights that we say that everybody has and that, you know, we can go to court to enforce?
ALAN: Has the fact that you spoken out in these ways affected you or add to the racism that you experienced made it more difficult for you?
HILL: It is very difficult for me to put myself in a position of average person in terms of what I experience because so much of how people might react to me is dependent, I think, on what happened in 1991. And it's also difficult for me to separate out racism versus sexism in my life when I experienced what I think of as bias. So I think all of those things come together to give people an opinion about who I am and what I stand for, and then they react to that. They react to 1991. They react to my race. They react to my gender.
But ultimately, what I like to have people think about are my ideas. What do - what am I saying? How I'm - what am I doing? What kind of work am I doing? As a professional, as an academic, that's really what I have. My work, I hope, speaks for itself.
CONAN: Alan, thanks...
ALAN: I think that's the true worth of a person, and I'm very proud of your persistence and endurance.
CONAN: Alan, thanks very much.
HILL: Thank you. Thank you so much, Alan.
CONAN: Again, the book is "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home." Anita Hill is with us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
I just wanted to read a few emails. These might be added to all those letters.
HILL: Thank you.
CONAN: From Marcia: I wish I could show your testimony to my 13-year-old daughter. I will be sure to buy your book and discuss it with her. You did us all proud in an embarrassing moment for our nation. Thank you.
From Jackie(ph) in San Leandro: If I had to say something to Anita Hill, I would say thank you, thank you, thank you.
From Stephanie in Columbia, South Carolina: Thank you, Professor Hill. I was 24, much too young to understand the importance of the events 20 years ago. However, I now occupy a role as a female power broker, and I owe it to you. Thanks to you, employees receive sexual harassment training and people are aware.
A tweet from JustlikeMercury: I've been raped twice. All I would like to say is thank you for speaking out when so many of us keep quiet from shame.
And this from Connie: I so admire the courage of Anita Hill and congratulate her on her steadfastness. I recall an all-male Senate and - Senate Judiciary Committee and Anita Hill's incredible composure. My question is how did she survived emotionally the rejection of her testimony and how has she kept faith in a system that ratified Justice Thomas?
HILL: Well, there are two questions, how did I keep - how do I keep steady. Really, it gives me a chance to thank a lot of people. I've already thanked the letter writers, but I also want to thank just some individuals who were there at the beginning: friends, colleagues, of course, the legal teams. I was just at a conference this weekend with Professor Emma Coleman Jordan and Professor Kim Taylor Thomas and Professor Charles Ogletree and Susan Deller Ross, all of those people who were there 20 years ago who are still here today with me.
But, you know, my family and my background - my parents, they're in 1991. They've now - they're now deceased. The siblings that I had who were unwavering in their support for me, all of those things really came out of the home that we grew up in together, and it has allowed me to continue. I say, jokingly but not entirely, if I could live up to the standard that I had grown up in my home, I knew that I was going to be fine, that I was going to be able to withstand what was ahead of me. And so far, I have done that, and through faith and grace, I continue.
CONAN: And the other part of the question is how do you sustain faith in the system?
HILL: Well, I believe very much in our judiciary system. That is really why I testified to began with because my belief in the integrity of the court and the individuals who sit on - in final judgment of so many critical questions. And I know people are disappointed with individual cases that come up and decisions that are made today. But I also remind myself that this is a court that is evolving and continues to evolve. This is the same court that brought us Plessy v. Ferguson, that locked us into segregation for decades. It's the same court that gave us Bradwell v. Illinois, that kept women out of professional life for decades. But it's also the court that reversed those decisions in cases like Brown v. the Board of Education, and many of the school cases, Sipuel v. the University of Oklahoma being one of those cases.
So all of those cases really make up the body of work of the Supreme Court. And I believe it's a body that I continue to have confidence in as a - an institution even though some individual decisions can be disappointing.
CONAN: Finally, we just have about a minute with you left, but the - you write about home and the importance of it growing up in Oklahoma. You moved to college - eventually to Boston, your intellectual home, you say - at Brandeis. Yet, at least part of the time now, you're going to be moving to Washington. Are you going to be more of the public policy - take more public role?
HILL: I'm not physically moving to Washington. I will be working with a law firm in Washington - Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. It's a law firm that really is - they're passionate advocates for equality for plaintiffs, generally, but particular practice is equality practice, discrimination in the workplace. I don't know that I will be taking any greater role in kind of policy advocacy that happens in Washington, D.C. except through my academic work.
CONAN: Anita Hill, thank you so much, and good luck with the book.
HILL: Thank you so much.
CONAN: The book is "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home." Anita Hill joined us from our bureau in New York. Coming up, NPR's new ombudsman has had a few months to get acclimated, so he's going talk to you, our listeners, about trusting the media. Stay with us. We'll be back in just a moment. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.