30 Years After Her Historic Testimony, Anita Hill Is Still Fighting to End Gender Violence

With a new book out September 28, Hill continues to move the conversation forward. That's why she's one of our Badass Women — those who show up, speak up, and get things done.

Anita Hill
Photo: Celeste Sloman

It's been three decades since Anita Hill testified that her former supervisor, then-Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her while she was his assistant at the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That October 1991 Senate hearing thrust Hill, then 35, into the national spotlight — but at the time, she had no idea how it would shape her life's work.

"I wish I'd known I was going to be in this for the long haul," Hill told InStyle during an interview for our Badass Women issue. "Then I wouldn't have been discouraged when things didn't happen quickly or the way I wanted." Despite the ups and downs, Hill has stayed on course. She currently teaches courses on gender, race, social policy, and legal history at Brandeis University and leads the Hollywood Commission, which aims to create institutional change in the entertainment industry by tackling its long-standing culture of abuse and power disparity. With the release of her third book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence, out on Sept. 28, it's clear that the lawyer and professor, now 65, has zero plans to slow down.

"Once you get on this track, you don't stop. You just realize there's something else to accomplish," she says. "Right now, I'm feeling like I have time. I wish for everyone the feeling I have about how I live my life: I can do things to make the world better for other people, and that's really a gift. Not everyone feels they have that kind of power."

The concentration of power — who holds it and the ways they use it to harm those who don't have enough — has been central to Hill's work all along. "This has been a public crisis long before the #MeToo movement, and people are still facing resistance to their ideas or identities in the workplace and can't come forward," she says. "As long as those conditions exist, I will be doing this work."

Our full conversation, below.

InStyle: What does it mean to you to be a badass woman?

AH: Well, the thing is, I didn't plan my life to be this way. I hoped I would be one of those teachers that does her teaching, goes to the library, does her research, writes, and then just lives a very relaxed and quiet life. I taught contracts and commercial law, and I was very happy with that. But once you start looking into certain issues and realize you have something to say, it's time to step up and say it. I consider myself quite privileged to be able to do what I do now. So it means a lot.

Creating a better and more inclusive society has long been a motivating force in your life. Do you think we're getting there?

Can we have a place or society or even just a workplace, to start, that is safe and inclusive of everyone? When I first graduated from law school, I thought the journey to change the world would be a sprint. After 20 years, I thought it was more of a marathon. Now I've realized it's a relay: Each generation does what they can, and some do more than those who came before them. But at some point, we're going to have to pass the baton. And I hope my generation leaves the world a better place than what we came into.

What is the one thing you hope each student takes away from your class and remembers for years to come?

It's funny — I just got a wonderful email from a young individual who graduated a few years ago and has gone on to work at a fairly high-profile place in Washington, D.C. It said, "I'm reminded by people like you that our job really is to bring people who are in the margins into the center of a conversation." I want every student to leave my class with the tools to understand what it's like to be in the margins and to center those voices, whether it's because of a lack of education or economic resources or is related to race, gender, sexuality, or identity. I teach at a policy school, so I want those voices to be represented in every piece of policy that gets enacted. I want my students to leave thinking, "This group of people is worth fighting for." We all have to be in the fight. That's the message.

Lawyer Anita Hill Before Testifying at Senate Judiciary Hearing
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It's been 30 years since your testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings. What inspired you to write your new book, Believing?

A few years ago, I started looking at issues of gender violence — not just sexual harassment in terms of what happened to me, but stories I've heard from others who have identified with my situation, and there were so many similarities. The exact behavior was different — some were victims of intimate partner violence, others of incest or rape. But these people would come to me and talk about their experiences, and I realized that I needed to talk about more than just sexual harassment.

[The Hollywood Commission] did a survey last year about the culture and climate in the [film] industry, and there's discrimination about almost every identity, whether it's related to sex, gender, race, ethnicity, age — you name it. It's a huge problem. It really is like boiling the ocean.

This is about our systems: It happens because our systems allow it to happen, and the systems that should be protecting us aren't doing what they should be doing.

What is your ultimate hope in releasing the book?

I want to make people aware of how huge the problem of gender violence is. It permeates our court system and every aspect of government; look at the problem of sexual assault in the military. Look at what's going on in our workplaces. There are 30-year-old cases that still haven't been resolved. It's costing individuals and the whole world so much.

This is about our systems: It happens because our systems allow it to happen, and the systems that should be protecting us aren't doing what they should be doing. I want people to understand that we can all be a part of making the change. I feel like we can do better, and that's what motivated me. I do talk about the heartbreak of it all, because the heartbreak is there and it's real. But I also provide ways to move forward.

Where do you find the strength to keep moving forward yourself?

I get inspired by people who believe in me — and if you're lucky, that starts at home. My mother really believed in me and so did my 12 siblings. If you grow up with that, you learn to internalize it. I'm not sure I'd call myself a deeply religious person, but I do think of myself as a spiritual person. I believe having connections to people helps me feel empowered to move forward. Sometimes it comes from a stranger I meet or a story I read about someone who has done the impossible. I also have a great partner in life; he routinely gives me a boost about what I can do and how important my work is. So I've got multiple sources I can rely on — and trust me, when you're in this kind of work, you need multiple sources.

If you could go back to 1991, before the hearings, would you give yourself any advice?

Yeah. I would remind myself, "There's no such thing as instant success that lasts. Things don't have to happen today or tomorrow, and you have to keep working if you want them to happen at all. You know how stubborn you are, so just keep doing this until you feel like you've given everything you have. Be willing to invest your time and effort and know that, ultimately, you're going to win."

When do you feel most in your power these days?

First thing in the morning. Maybe it's because I grew up on a farm, but I know that's when you've got to use your energy and get going on things. You can't procrastinate. Take on whatever the challenges of the day are and just be grateful to have the energy and the wherewithal to do it.

What are you still ambitious for?

I'm hopeful that one day I'll get up in the morning and realize that things are infinitely better for the generations behind me than what I had when I was their age. When I can wake up and be assured that that day has come, then I will have achieved my ambition. But it doesn't mean I'll stop; it will just mean I have to get a new ambition.

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