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by Amy Wheeler

“I will not stand by silently and allow him, in his anger, to reinvent me.”

~ Anita Hill, in response to Clarence Thomas’ 2007 autobiography

Two decades ago, a young female attorney with humble Oklahoma roots held America spellbound as she “spoke truth to power” on national television.

The year was 1991 and Anita Hill’s courageous testimony, delivered during the nominations process for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, raised the country’s awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace.

I remember being riveted to the television for the duration of the hearings, being shocked by the lewd comments and come-ons Hill reported Thomas making while she worked with him. But my outrage flared when the panel of all-white, all-male Senators began interrogating Hill, as if she were on trial.

Thomas famously referred to Hill’s testimony as a “high tech lynching for uppity blacks.” I experienced it as a “high tech character assassination” of a woman who kept her composure while the Senators did their best to shame and humiliate her.

I’ve never forgotten Hill’s calm presence, her grace under pressure, her simple delivery of carefully chosen words in a voice that never wavered, her unflinching honesty. I will also never forget Thomas’ arrogance and rage; and the media circus that thrust them both into the glaring spotlight, exposing the fault lines between race and class in America’s psyche.

America in 1991 was a place, and a time, that didn’t make sense to me. I was an actor in my 20’s, living in New York, in a committed relationship with an amazing woman, but not-quite-out to my family in Oklahoma. It was year three of President George HW Bush’s term, and I was despairing. For a queer girl born in the shadow of JFK’s assassination, and raised by liberal parents in the Bible Belt, it was a shocking, unsettling time. I’d been living under the illusion that the peace movement of the 60’s represented America’s true identity as a democracy, and that the conservative Reagan-Bush years were just a phase. It goes without saying: this illusion is really more of a delusion, and has been shattered more times than I care to admit.

New York in 1991: Homelessness was rampant, and AIDS was a word most of us were hearing for the first time. Each morning, I walked from my apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the subway, stepping over human beings sleeping on the sidewalk. I had not yet found my voice as a playwright. I was living in an emotional limbo, tongue-tied with rage at the injustices all around me, but unable to find words.

I felt a kinship with this woman who’d grown up on an Oklahoma farm, the youngest of 13 children.  I never for one moment questioned if she was telling the truth. Why in the world would a young woman with a stellar reputation and career sacrifice it all to lie under oath? How could anyone believe she invented such outrageous stories, like Thomas insinuating she’d put a pubic hair on his Coke can?

The country’s context for the testimony was equally complex and troubling. 1991 marked the year of the “Rodney King beating,” as it became known, when a passerby captured video footage of an African American man being severally beaten on the street by a group of white officers of the LAPD. It was also the year that heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was accused (and eventually convicted) of raping the 19-year-old Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington.

Add to this landscape the surreal launch of Operation Desert Storm, which kicked off the Gulf War with televised “strategic” bombings of allegedly military (ie non-civilian) targets, ushering words like “scud” and “Patriot missiles” into our urban vernacular, and spawning a new era of video war games.

So now, 20 years later, we have an African American male president, who campaigned for his party’s nomination in a neck-and-neck race with a white female candidate—a primary election that again had us arguing about race and gender.

Mike Tyson was found guilty, served prison time, and has gone on to be accused by numerous other women of assault and sexual abuse. Desiree Washington (not unlike Anita Hill) was portrayed widely as an opportunistic young woman, who engaged in consensual sex with Tyson, then lied. A 1992 People Magazine article tells the story of Desiree’s nightmares and reclusiveness, her parent’s divorce caused by the strain of the trial and public scrutiny. The article describes how she was working to put the pieces of her life back together: living with her Mom in an apartment near a strip mall and going back to school.

For his part, Mike Tyson continues to deny the charges. In a 2006 ABC News story, Tyson proclaimed, “I really wish I did now. But now I really do want to rape her.”

Anita Hill was forced to leave her faculty position with the University of Oklahoma, and is now a professor at Brandeis University. She’s written books and spoken about her experience, refusing to let the 1991 defamation of her character be the final chapter in the story of her testimonial.

Supreme Court Justice Thomas devoted a scathing section of his 2007 autobiography to Anita Hill. And just last year, Thomas’ wife Virginia, an outspoken Tea Partier, left a voicemail message on Anita Hill’s office phone at 7:30 am one morning, asking her to “…apologize for what you put my husband through.” Ms. Thomas is founder of the conservative advocacy group Liberty Central, dedicated to training Tea Party activists. In a surprise 2010 memoir, Lillian McEwen, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Clarence Thomas’ girlfriend at the time of his nomination, told the Washington Post that he was “obsessed with pornography” and that commenting on his female coworkers bodies “…was a hobby of his.” She didn’t speak out in 1991 because she didn’t want to lose her job.

Hill calls the events of 1991 “traumatic,” and says it took her years to completely let go of her anger about the event itself, and the personal and professional fall-out she endured afterwards. In a recent Newsweek interview, she says:

“I think we let go of anger bit by bit. To me, the best way to do that is to think about what my contribution can be, to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people. The larger goal is both gender equality and racial equality, because both racism and sexism contributed to my being victimized.”

Gloria Steinem adds her voice to the Newsweek article: “When Hill was not believed, the feeling was that this would cause fewer people to report sexual harassment. But what happened was the reverse, because she had opened up the subject. Women began to talk to each other and discovered that this had happened to may other women, so it turned out to be a huge teach-in on sexual harassment.”

What is the cost of speaking the truth? For a woman? And especially for a woman of color?

This and other questions will be at the heart of a public inquiry hosted at New York’s Hunter College tomorrow (Saturday, Oct 15th): SEX, POWER AND SPEAKING TRUTH: ANITA HILL 20 YEARS LATER.

Anita Hill herself is the Keynote Speaker, and she’s joined by a wide array of speakers, spanning three decades—mostly women—to witness, respond and analyze present day realities in law, politics, the confluence of race, class and gender, the persistent questioning of women’s credibility, issues of black masculinity and current cases of sexual harassment.

Hedgebrook is proud to be a co-sponsor of the conference, featuring a line-up as diverse and provocative as the event the day observes, and including a number of Hedgebrook alumnae and Creative Advisory Council members: Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, Lynn Nottage, Rha Goddess and Hope Anita Smith. Amy Richards is a conference organizer.

I’ll blog again following the conference. From this vantage point, I’m excited to be in the room with these people, revisiting 1991, then envisioning together a trajectory that one day leads to real equality.

You can join the conference via live stream on the website: www.anitahill20.org


Amy Wheeler
About Amy Wheeler


  • Mary Tang
    8:47 PM - 14 October, 2011

    Dear Amy,

    I have asked myself, “What is the point of writing this memoir and who cares?”

    You, in this article, gave me the answer: it is to stand witness and to stand side by side with others who do not have the words. Thank you.

    Love, Mx

  • Amy Wheeler
    2:36 AM - 15 October, 2011


    That’s what I feel I’m also learning from researching the history and looking again at what Anita Hill did. She stood in that space, alone, when so many other women who knew–firsthand–that what she was saying was true stayed silent.

    The one thing that Clarence Thomas and those Senators (and those who stayed silent) didn’t bank on was time.

    Keep writing, Mary, we need your story.

    Love, Amy

  • Christina Rinnert
    8:16 PM - 17 October, 2011


    This was the most powerful event of my life. I’ve been uplifted by you and so many of the wonderfully strong women I met on Saturday. To be encouraged by writers like Amy Evans and Kevin Powell was incredibly validating. Listening, and watching, women of all ages talk about what it takes to “stand in truth” was just what I needed.

    Now, I am determined more than ever to speak my own truth and let time tease out the liars.

    Thank you so much for all that you are doing for women writers. I am in awe. 🙂


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