On the eve of his Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1991, Judge Clarence Thomas was confronted with old, unsubstantiated charges of sexual harassment by former colleague Anita Hill. A fawning documentary of Hill has just been released, and New York Times's political reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg uses it as an excuse for a fawning interview with Hill on the front page of Sunday's Arts & Leisure section under the headline "Standing by Her Story."
Stolberg is only the latest Times reporter to sympathize strongly with Hill in the decades-long saga, slamming insensitive male senators who took years to "make amends" for their tough questioning of Hill and portraying her as a "legend" for "awe-struck," teary-eyed young women.
On the day in 1991 that the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Anita Hill -- the little-known law professor who riveted the nation by accusing him of sexual harassment -- faced news cameras outside her simple brick home in Norman, Okla., with her mother by her side, and politely declined to comment on the vote.
In the nearly 23 years since, Ms. Hill, now a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University here, has worked hard, she likes to say, to help women “find their voices.” She has also found hers -- and she is not afraid to use it.
For those too young to remember, Ms. Hill was the reluctant witness in the explosive Thomas hearings, the young African-American lawyer in the aqua suit, grilled in excruciatingly graphic detail by an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearings transformed the country, sparking a searing conversation about sexual harassment, as well as Ms. Hill, who was vilified as a liar by conservatives but ultimately embraced, as the film shows, by a new generation of young women.
Yet like Anita the person, "Anita" the movie is bound to unleash raw feelings in Washington. Some conservative Republicans still revile Ms. Hill. Some Democrats -- including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who “did a terrible job” running the hearings, in Ms. Hill’s view -- would probably like to forget her.
Stolberg quoted one of Justice Thomas's supporters, a former clerk, before turning instantly back to support for Hill, even criticizing Democrats like then-Senator Joe Biden for the failure to block Thomas's confirmation as a Judiciary Committee member.
Stolberg credited Hill for a ten-fold leap in female senators and laws favoring sex discrimination accusers, while portraying Hill as a victim of insensitive male senators. In Stolberg's 2012 obit of Sen. Arlen Specter she trumpeted that "Mr. Specter expressed contrition" to women's groups for his "aggressive questioning" of Hill.
Stolberg was gratified that "fortunately," conservative threats didn't work on Hill.
There were thousands of letters of support, but also death threats, threats to her job. Conservative state lawmakers wanted her fired; fortunately, she had tenure. Even years later, she felt “a discomfort,” she said. One dean confided that he had tired of hearing colleagues at other schools remark, “Isn’t that where Anita Hill is?”
In Washington, her testimony reverberated. Sexual harassment claims shot up. “Our phones were ringing off the hook with people willing to come forward who had been suffering in silence,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, where Ms. Hill serves on its board.
Congress passed a law allowing victims of sex discrimination to sue for damages, just as victims of racial discrimination could. Waves of women began seeking public office. In 1991, there were two female senators. Today there are 20.
But if Washington moved on, Ms. Hill could not. Once, in an Oklahoma airport, she bumped into Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania senator who had accused her of perjury and who died in 2012. He said maybe they could work together on some things, that she should call him. Ms. Hill was astonished; she never did. Just one senator, Paul Simon of Illinois, made amends; before he died, he sent Ms. Hill his autobiography with a nice inscription.
(Stolberg mentions deep inside and in passing that, by the way, Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the Times, who co-authored the 1994 anti-Thomas book "Strange Justice," is interviewed in the documentary.)
The film follows Ms. Hill through a 20th-anniversary commemoration, where awe-struck young women, some in tears, thank her and praise her courage. Emily May, a co-founder of Hollaback!, a nonprofit group that fights street harassment, was among them.
“We all felt like we were seeing this legend,” Ms. May said.
Stolberg closed with a shot of Anita Hill triumphant.
But she wants America to know that “I have a good life,” a life of meaning and purpose, that “something positive” has come out of those dark 1991 days. Looking back, she said, she sometimes marvels at how hard her critics worked to destroy her.
“And yet,” she said, sounding satisfied, “here I am.”