Read All Your Hate Mail: Anita Hill's Advice on the Fight for Equality

With reports of sexual misconduct cropping up in pretty much every industry, we spoke to the woman responsible for changing the dialogue about workplace sexual harassment.

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Apr 12 2016, 4:10pm

Screengrab via "Speaking Truth to Power"

Many women now entering the workforce for the first time are too young to remember when law professor Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. At the confirmation hearings that would determine whether Thomas would serve as a US Supreme Court Justice, Hill, collected and composed in a turquoise suit, testified that he had repeatedly badgered her for dates when she worked for him at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Education. The hearings, famous for Hill's recounting of Thomas's alleged remarks on large-breasted women, bestiality, and pubic hair, were broadcast nationally and made tabloid headlines. At the time, it was the most publicized case of sexual harassment in America to date.

On April 16, HBO will air Confirmation, a fictionalized version of these events starring Kerry Washington as Hill. During a moment in which reports of sexual harassment are cropping up in an array of industries from music to tech, it seems especially timely to revisit the case responsible for changing the dialogue about appropriate workplace behavior. In advance of the HBO premiere, I spoke to Hill, who now teaches at Brandeis University, about street harassment, her pick for the current Supreme Court nominee, and whether female bloggers should read their hate mail.

BROADLY: Do you think we're living in a moment in which sexual harassment is more prevalent than ever before, or is it just more visible because activists have brought renewed awareness to the issue?
Anita Hill: I think it's more visible. I think that because of the Internet, it has more ways of being manifested. It may have once just been on the street and in the workplace, but now it's on your computer when you're sitting down at your desk. The mechanisms are more readily available, and much more anonymous. Even in the workplace and schools, social media opens you up for harassment. Even your email can be used for harassment. So I'm not sure that concept itself is more prevalent, but the mechanisms are just more freely accessible. I think that's why it feels like there's more of it.

The whole range of abusive behavior, from harassment that is disparaging and bullying in nature to harassment that is threatening to individuals, that whole range is in the middle of a cultural reconsideration about women's ability to reject this behavior and what they're entitled to once they do it. What kind of respect and protections are they entitled to? And what are going to be the consequences for the people who [commit harassment]? These are questions we still have to ask ourselves.

Read as much hate as you can stand. It's revealing of a certain kind of anger towards women, and it's revealing of a fear of equality.

One form of sexual harassment that activists have recently begun to organize around is street harassment—catcalling, whistles, and comments directed towards women while we go about our day in public. Do you think this type of behavior—which many victims experience as threatening—should be criminalized, or are there alternative ways of combatting it?
I think if there is a threat, then yes, there should be legal action. I'd have to really think about how to articulate [a behavior] being a crime without an actual threat behind it. I'm not a criminal lawyer, so I'm probably not the best person to answer, but I would say if it rises to the level of a threat, there would have to be some action that can be taken.

If you think about trying to criminalize [street harassment], though, think about how difficult it's going to be. How are you going to find someone in a car? You can't even identify them if they drive by—sometimes you only hear the voices, you don't even see the faces. I think that's why it would be very difficult to define it as criminal behavior.

Some of the tactics of groups like Hollaback help people understand the kind of pain [harassment] causes, as well as empower women to actually stop the behavior. I think both responses are important. The educational part of it is critical. Many of the men who are engaged in this behavior don't even have any clue that it's offensive. It's [important] to get to those people through an educational process, educating them about what pain they're causing. But I do think other actions that groups like Hollaback are promoting give women the tools to respond to and stop the behavior. Because there isn't an institution that's going to take responsibility, as opposed to [situations where harassment takes place in] a school setting or a business setting.

Another current manifestation of sexual harassment involves the ways that female writers and bloggers are treated on the Internet—many of us get anonymous rape threats and death threats for writing controversial material, especially feminist material. As someone who has had to deal with similar unwanted attention for being a public figure, do you have any words of wisdom or advice for young women online?
I would tell them to read as much of [the hate mail] as you can stand. I think the mail is quite revealing. It's revealing of a certain kind of anger towards women, and it's revealing of a fear of equality—a misunderstanding, a myth of what gender equality means, as some sort of unwarranted threat to men. To some extent, it's healthy to read them.

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I've held on to all of my negative [letters]. They were sorted by a group of volunteers, who were retired librarians so they knew how to do that sort of thing. I do have them, and I do read them. I keep them for a purpose, to learn something.

That's a really interesting response, because so many people say things like, 'I don't read the comments,' for their own mental health.
Well, it's difficult. Read only as much as you can. I think some ways it might be helpful to see where [the detractors] are coming from. To say, well, I guess it's not even about me personally.

People love to fantasize about who would play them in a movie, but most of us will never actually have that experience. What was it like watching Kerry Washington play you? Were you a fan of her work before Confirmation?
I'm actually a fan of her. I like her work, but I also like that she stands up for things that she believes in. She's an incredible spokesperson for equality. She really has a strong public persona. That's why I think she is so important to play this role.

Hill and Kerry Washington via Getty

Were you involved as a consultant on Confirmation? Did the writers or producers ask for your input?
Oh yes, they did ask for input, and I gave it, in part because this is an experience that I felt that I knew intimately, and I wanted to be sure that I weighed in on it. I guess I was a little skeptical of Hollywood writing a story about something that was so important to me without me, so I did get involved with it. I talked with Susannah Grant, the writer. I spoke on different occasions with Kerry Washington, and also with [producer] Michael London. I had a chance to take a look at the script. I didn't get to have approval, but I did get to look at it.

I want to get a sense of your personal reaction to the film. Do you think it portrayed the hearings, and your part in them, accurately?
I have to say, I knew that it was a fictionalized account. I wasn't expecting it to be accurate. It wasn't every piece of the language taken from the hearings. So I wasn't expecting it to be, moment to moment, exactly the same words that were being said, and I think that helped. I think it helps to understand there are composite characters, conversations that were pulled together and created for the script. It's an adaptation. The screenwriter has to take some poetic license, but I do believe that at its essence, at its core, it tells the story of what happened in October of 1991.

Washington playing Hill in "Confirmation." Courtesy of HBO

I thought that if we're talking about women, I would have liked for [certain] characters—let's call them individuals—to have been developed a little bit more—people like Emma Goldman-Jordan, and Susan Deller Ross, and Joan Taylor, Sonia Jarvis even. They worked very hard, and they were real smart, and they were thinking strategically to get us where we were, to make sure I was heard.

The film also is very much built on the behind-the-scenes with the Senate staffers and operatives working on behalf of Clarence Thomas. So they have a different focus than I would have.

In one of the final scenes of the film, Washington, as you, returns to her campus office to find overflowing boxes of letters, presumably written by women around the county sharing their own stories of harassment. I assume this is based on your actual experience. Did you answer all the letters?
Oh God, no. There were about 25,000 of them. You get a small sense of what I have in my files when you see the film. But ultimately those letters just kept coming and coming and coming. So no, I haven't answered all of them.

Who would be your dream pick for the justice to take Antonin Scalia's place on the Supreme Court?
Well, first of all, I just want there to be a hearing. I want the president to be able to submit his nomination, and for there to be a fair hearing, and then a vote. It sounds like I don't ask for much, but in this day and age, that seems to be a lot more than what's coming.

My dream choice? I would love to see Loretta Lynch on the bench. She brings in an interesting point of view as a prosecutor, but I like what she says about access to justice. I like what she's said about hate crimes. I think because she's a criminal prosecutor, there are some areas where we might disagree, but I think [she's] a really important voice—she's an African American woman who is the daughter of the Civil Rights era. I could start with her, but maybe now I should go make my own list!