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Anita Hill finally gets the last word

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John Duricka / The Associated Press
Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary  Committee on Oct. 11, 1991.

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John Duricka / The Associated Press Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 11, 1991.

During the Senate judiciary hearings for the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991, two things happened.

One: A law professor named Anita Hill was obliged to testify of the sexual harassment she endured working under Thomas at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission years earlier.

Two: Thomas effectively labelled Hill a liar when he categorically denied the content of her testimony, which included Thomas making suggestive remarks about the size of his sexual organ, and attempting to draw her into a discussion of a porn star named Long Dong Silver.

Essentially, it was Hill's word against Thomas's. We know what happened: Hill was widely deemed a feminist hysteric and Thomas has been sitting on the Supreme Court bench ever since.

One wishes this documentary was a little tougher. It stands as a tribute to Hill for the grace she showed under the duress of unprecedented media scrutiny, but it stops short of accusing the Supreme Court justice of being a liar, although all evidence certainly skews that way.

The film starts with the recording on Hill's answering machine left by Thomas's wife Ginni in October 2010, demanding an apology from Hill for those sexual harassment allegations.

"I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband," chirps Ginni, now a full-blown Tea Party activist.

Ginni doesn't sound like the brightest spoon in the silverware drawer, but her assumption is probably shared by many of the people who watched those confirmation hearings.

In that respect, the doc does provide some important background, including the fact that Hill's testimony was not the result of a personal vendetta. Hill received a query from the FBI about her experience working with Thomas. She answered honestly about the job, from which she eventually resigned, discomfited by Thomas's apparent enthusiasm for inappropriate behaviour. Hill reported to the confirmation hearings because she was subpoenaed.

If 1991 wasn't all that long ago, the footage of that hearing is rather amazing, as Hill is queried by an all-white, all-male group of senators -- including Orrin Hatch, Edward Kennedy and Joe Biden -- who seem utterly clueless that such a thing as sexual harassment even exists.

The most liberal of her inquisitors -- Ted Kennedy -- is, shall we say, suspect when it comes to keeping separate the realms of sexual and professional relationships. (One Saturday Night Live sketch of the era shows Kennedy on the panel with a paper bag over his head.) Thomas cannily played the race card, declaring the inquiry a "high-tech lynching" without acknowledging that Hill was also black. (Looking back on it, Hill ruefully notes that Thomas had race and she had gender.)

It was a disheartening chapter in American history: Who says liars never prosper? But the doc offers comfort that, in becoming a reluctant lightning rod for the issue of sexual harassment, the modest and soft-spoken Hill achieved more than she could have anticipated in raising consciousness on the issue to the benefit of women everywhere.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2014 D5

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