Thursday, March 23, 2000

One true thing is Anita Hill's role in history




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I am watching a tape of the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill is telling her story.

        Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the judiciary committee, listens intently, as does Sen. Ted Kennedy to his right. To Sen. Biden's left, Sen. Strom Thurmond is reading something. But the very senior senator from South Carolina — famous, according to columnist Maureen Dowd, for “bumping into” women in elevators — snaps to as Anita Hill says the word “penis.”

        At the onset of the hearings, Sen. Biden said, “Perhaps 14 men sitting here today cannot fully understand, but we are going to listen as closely as we can. And we are going to find the truth.”

        But, of course, they never did.

        The only blue dress was the cornflower frock worn by Anita Hill. Should she have saved the soda can? There was no proof, only her word against his. She said when Clarence Thomas was her boss, he asked her for dates — repeatedly — and she said no. He said he did no such thing. “I categorically deny all allegations.”

        It was not a matter of interpretation. Somebody was lying.

        I shut off the VCR to answer the telephone. Anita Hill, now professor of law at Brandeis University, is on the line. She will be appearing here for the 20th anniversary of the University of Cincinnati Friends of Women's Studies.

Drama and garbage
        I'm probably supposed to talk about current events. But, as she herself says, “The Senate hearings will always be the first thing that will come to mind when you hear my name.” She says she's proud of her testimony, but insists she was pulled into the procedure.

        “I didn't call some Democratic leader and say, "Hey, I've got a hot tip for you.' I still don't know how they got my name.”

        She says she “can't think of anything I'd do differently, except maybe act sooner.” The cost was dear. Besides her privacy, she says she was exposed to ugliness and vilified.

        It was ugly all the way around. Clarence Thomas told senators he was “shocked, surprised, hurt, enormously saddened.” He told of “the pain to my family” and reporters “sneaking into my garage and sifting through my garbage.”

        Networks pre-empted their prime-time dramas to televise the real drama being played out on Capitol Hill. Ultimately, Clarence Thomas was appointed to the nation's highest court by a vote of 52 to 48, the narrowest margin in history.

        And the words “sexual harassment” came out of the closet.

        “Anita Hill empowered other women to come forward,” says Mary Ellen Heintz, co-chair of the UC event. “We asked her to come here to speak not only because she is well known, but because she had the courage to bring to the forefront this very important issue that had been on the back burner for a long time.”

        Reservations for Anita Hill's speech, “Gender and the Workplace: Past, Present, Future,” can be made at 556-6323. Tickets for the event, which is at 6:30 p.m. March 31 at the Kingsgate Conference Center, 151 Goodman Drive in Corryville, cost $65. Deadline for reservations is Monday.

        Do you believe Anita Hill? Nine years later, she still tells the same story. She did not rush out and make a TV movie or sell her story to the rags. Opinion is still fiercely divided. “Credibility,” she says, “like other matters of character, is not subject to instant determination.”

        But here is what we know to be true: Today, an estimated nine out of every 10 companies has a sexual-harassment policy. More than 15,000 sexual-harassment cases a year are brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And these charges are taken seriously.

        Both women and men know sexual harassment is illegal, although not everybody agrees about what it is. We are still arguing.

        But Anita Hill started the conversation.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393.

       



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