Back in 1993, I rounded a corner of a Laguna Beach, Calif., grocery store and walked straight into Anita Hill.
We both stopped in our tracks. She looked slightly panicked, like someone had turned on a light in a room, and all she wanted was the door.
It took a moment to register that this was the woman who, just two years before, calmly testified before a Senate committee about the sexual harassment she endured while working for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of all places.
Thomas joked about pubic hair, debated penis length and breast size and talked about porn films. “Long Dong Silver” was a regular on late-night monologues.
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But when Thomas took his turn before the committee, the jokes ended. He threw down the race card, called the whole process a “high-tech lynching,” and ultimately was confirmed.
Hill, then 35, faded from the headlines — only to reappear in the dairy aisle of my Vons. I would learn later that she had retreated to our beachside town to write the book that would become 1998’s “Speaking Truth to Power.”
“Welcome to Laguna,” I stammered.
“Thank you,” she said, then hurried past me.
Over the phone the other day, I recalled the encounter for Hill, now 57 and a law professor at Brandeis University. She let out a soft laugh.
“It was one of those times I was finishing my book and I was trying to get all that stuff out of my head and onto paper,” Hill said. “I was trying to sort it all out, and I couldn’t think of a better place to do it.”
Hill is back in the spotlight, this time as the center of a new documentary called “Anita” which explores that chapter in her life, the effect it had on the lives of American women and how she has fared in the 23 years since.
The film, which opens in Seattle on Friday, April 4, was directed by Academy Award-winning director Freida Mock and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last October. Hill was sure to see it privately before sitting in a theater full of strangers.
“It was very emotional for me,” said Hill. “I was able to hold all that in until the moment my parents come into the (Senate hearing) room. They had been delayed.
“So many emotions started coming,” she continued. “There was a little sadness, just because they are no longer alive. But they haven’t been able to see how far I believe we have all come.”
Indeed, the year after Hill became a household name (and many other names, including a “scorned woman”), the number of women elected to the Senate went from two to six; and another 24 women won seats in the House of Representatives.
People went as far as to call 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”
But Hill likes to think her impact went beyond the voting booth.
“I am a believer that after the testimony, there were a lot of women who got engaged in the process,” she said. “There were public and private conversations. And people learned. Mothers talked to their daughters, daughters talked to their fathers about what it was like to be a woman out on her own.”
And yet, women (and men) are still harassed in all corners of American life: At home, at college, in the military and in government.
So what can be done to change the system?
“Some of these things are a no brainer,” Hill said.
Just look at how the Senate handled her case: They treated Hill’s testimony as a “he said, she said, without fully investigating,” she said.
Worse, members of the committee grandstanded about the testimony, about Hill’s motives. They oozed bias and publicly denounced Hill.
“I was truly hurt by the process,” she said. “Information got out because of the senators’ ability to say anything.”
In contrast, Hill was lauded for being the epitome of grace under pressure, and admired for the way she wordlessly passed through the throngs of reporters and detractors, never grabbing the spotlight. She said what she needed to on the stand, and nowhere else.
But don’t call her a role model, she said.
“Women should come into this process and be who they are,” Hill said. “The feelings are real and genuine and to be respected. They should be themselves without being caricatured. We have a right to our own dignity and no one should take that away because we don’t behave the way they think we should behave.
“Be yourself. Your honest and truest, best self.”
And never relax and think all the work is finished. We may have improved the number of the women in the Senate, Hill said, but that isn’t enough.
“We need to start looking at the racial makeup of the Senate,” she said. “Now, if we took that picture, you’re still going to have a homogeneous racial group of people. What are we going to do in a country that is as pluralistic as we are?”
Hill isn’t the talking-head type. Rather than get miked-up and mouth off on any number of talk shows, she works behind-the-scenes with a Washington, D.C., law firm that does class-action cases on gender and race discrimination; is connected with the National Women’s Law Center on health care issues; and works with an organization called The Opportunity Agenda, which is focused on equality.
Perhaps the nicest surprise of “Anita” is that Hill is fully represented. You see her with her family and meet her longtime companion, Chuck Malone. You see her walking with students at Brandeis.
“It was important for me, in the film, that people knew the whole me,” she said. “That people got a chance to see my wonderful family and that they see where my parents came from …
“We get distilled to one element of our lives and it’s not good for us. The hearings were a part of my life, but they are not all of who I am.
“I work at having a good life for myself because I think I deserve it.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.