This interview is an excerpt from What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?: Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power by Marianne Schnall. All rights reserved.
Marianne Schnall: What is your sense of why we have not yet had a woman president?
Anita Hill: I think we’ve had, and we continue to have, this skewed concept of what leadership looks like. Leadership in our minds, unfortunately, has a gender and the gender is male. We see that not only in politics; we see it also in just about every kind of business and different aspects of our lives, even in environments where you are presumed to be very liberal and open to change. And there are all kinds of cultural factors. I always talk about cultural factors, because I think very often when you talk about politics, you’ll hear people say if women could raise money or if they were going up through the ranks… you hear all of these reasons why [electing a woman president] is not possible, [based] purely on money and, to some extent, on system. But I think we can’t discount the role of culture in shaping our concept of what women can do.
“I think we’ve got so many complex issues that cannot be resolved by looking at them from one perspective.”
MS: A lot of times this gets framed as a fairness or equality issue, but why is it important that we have more women there, aside from just basic parity for parity’s sake? What do you think women would bring?
AH: They’ll broaden the information that goes into decision making. I think people tend to connect with and bring into their own circles people who are like them, so by bringing in one person, you are more likely to bring additional women voices into the decision-making process, and that’s going to be better for everyone if the perspective is broadened. I think we’ve got so many complex issues that cannot be resolved by looking at them from one perspective. And ultimately, allowing more women in will help make better decisions if, in fact, those women are powerful and in tune with and connected with other women’s voices, and perhaps voices of people who have been left out of the conversation, including people of color.
MS: There’s been a lot of talk that there are also psychological obstacles that women impose on themselves, by not naturally advocating for themselves in the workplace, or these studies that say that women have to be almost begged to run for office. Do you think that that’s also a factor?
AH: Yes, but I don’t know that women will need to be begged if they know that there’s a system that’s not rigged against them. So it’s like a chicken-and-egg thing. I don’t know that women would need to be begged if they thought that they were going into a process that was fair and that was going to treat them fairly. So what comes first? I’m not sure, but I think you’re right that women are going to have to take risks to get engaged, and I think they can build opportunities for other women.
But then you ask yourself—when you say to women, “Oh, you have to ‘lean in’”—how much risk are we willing to ask women to take without providing them with some kind of security that they’re not just doing that for nothing? I’m not sure where the point is where we start saying yes, we want women to lean in, but on the other hand, we also want to assure them that there is a system where it’s going to be worth their effort if they lean in.
“When you talk about people who do things that people perceive as really courageous… I think what they were looking at was not the consequences of doing a thing as much as the consequences of not doing it.”
MS: Speaking of taking risks, I actually found myself getting a little emotional when I was watching the MAKERS documentary, when it gets to the part where it talks about your role in history. I can’t think of many people who took as much of a high-profile risk as you did. How did you find your courage and strength to speak out?
AH: When you talk about people who do things that people perceive as really courageous, most of the time what motivates them is not the risk that they’re looking at, of what might happen that would be really, really disastrous for them, but what’s the importance of what it is you’re trying to achieve?
And I think for me, when I look at those things, I look at some of my role models, people like Rosa Parks and Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, who, as a twenty year old, sued to integrate the University of Oklahoma College of Law. And in the case of both of those women, I’ve read some of what they cared about and what was important to them, and I think what they were looking at was not the consequences of doing a thing as much as the consequences of not doing it.
So for me, when I think about the hearing, what motivated me to do it was bigger than the consequences of doing it. I mean, I knew that I had important information about Clarence Thomas, what kind of judge he was going to be, because I knew about his own behavior that really said that he had no respect for the law and that he believed himself to be above the law. In the situation I’m talking about, it happened to be sexual harassment, which carried with it another kind of meaning, in that we’re going to have somebody in a position of ultimate authority, having a role to play in deciding the rights of women and people of color, in cases of discrimination. And knowing that the law was going to be written by and shaped by someone with a disregard for it was what I was looking at. And that was the consequence, and I could have an impact on how that shaped and took place. That was really what motivated me—it just outweighed the consequences.
Now, I didn’t know what all the consequences were [laughs], and maybe that helped, but I think there’s someplace in your conscience that says, If I don’t act, then I will have been a part of something that I don’t want to live with. I would have been moving away from something and turning my back on something.
You know that there are going to be negative consequences and, for me, I felt that I had the personal resources to be able to deal with it—I had my family, I had my friends. I felt that I could weather whatever occurred as a result. And then I tell people, “Then you pray a lot” [laughs]. You pray and you look to your family and you look to the people who love you and you have faith in God and you have faith in the people around you… and then you do what you know is best.
MS: There are so many lessons in your story, especially as we’re talking about how women running for office, or just stepping out in any way, are sometimes subject to so many different forms of personal attack and scrutiny. How did you not let that get to you? What did give you strength during that time?
AH: Well, so much of the scrutiny was just lies. It was just outright lies, and even on the part of some of the senators, some comments and statements that were made were just not true. So knowing that I knew the truth, that was very helpful, and knowing that the people around me knew the truth, that was also very helpful. I mean, some of the things that they ascribed to me were just so untrue and so unreal that it was disturbing, but it also took away some of the sting because I knew it wasn’t true and I knew that and I had enough people around me who knew who I was and what I am. So that’s in part how I dealt with it. I wouldn’t ever say that it didn’t get to me, that it didn’t hurt. You know, there was stuff about “Oh, she couldn’t give testimony against an important black man,” the whole racial issue, but that was not my biggest concern. My biggest concern was that the process was not interested in getting to the truth, and that was the only thing that was risky for me.
MS: I was looking at MAKERS, when they show that amazing footage of all the congresswomen marching to the Senate to demand that you be heard. Talk about the importance of having women in Congress! Do you remember how you felt about the fact that those women did come to your defense, and how important that was?
AH: Let’s just put it in this way: seeing that they were willing to, by going over to the Senate, sort of step out of their “place,” step out of what their defined roles as congresswomen were, and approach the Senate, which was clearly outside of protocol—had it not been for those women, there very likely would not have been a hearing. But if you look at the women who did go over—Patsy Mink, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Patricia Schroeder—I mean, these were all pioneers in women’s, gender, and racial issues. All of these women were pioneers, and they just knew, certainly before I did, why the testimony was of significance.
MS: That was really remarkable. And in fact, Eleanor Holmes Norton always says that your case sparked the Year of the Woman.
AH: Yes, it did. It also shows you that women are incredibly brave, and once they understand that they have rights and are in the position to pursue them, they will. Because even though the conventional wisdom was that women would not come forward, women in fact doubled the rate of filing sexual harassment claims in the year following the hearing. So to me there are so many lessons from that episode in history that go from the political lessons to the lessons that have to do with women’s rights and rights enforcement, and even into our interpersonal relationships. The fact that women could now tell their families and friends about their experiences, it was a significant breakthrough for us, socially and culturally.
MS: Do you think—and we talk about this whole need for more women in Washington—if more women had been there in the decision-making capacities, Clarence Thomas would have been confirmed?
AH: Let’s just say it this way: if the nine women who went over from Congress to the Senate had been in the Senate, then Clarence Thomas would not have been confirmed. So women’s representation is important, but I guess that is to say, the kind of women who understand women’s lives and women’s perspectives and the significance of the issues we confront in the country in general [are important]. If those women are in, yes, I think they can change the climate, and it would have changed what happened in 1991.
“Go out, find something that you know is not fair, is not just, and begin to change it.”
MS: What do you think are the most important ingredients that we need in a leader today, male or female?
AH: I think that most important is the ability to connect with the problems of people who are not like you—who have been underserved by government historically, who don’t enjoy the privileges that you do. So the ability to really connect with those people and design policies that will include their well-being—with an understanding that as they go, so goes the rest of the country—I think that is important and may be the most critical characteristic of a leader today. Because so often those are the people who are not going to be represented by a lobbyist or a very important vocal donor, so those are the interests that can get lost.
MS: You have so much wisdom to offer, and you’re now working with your students. What do you try to instill in them as they go off into the world? What do you hope that they come away with, and generally, what would your words of wisdom or advice be to young women today?
AH: My advice would be to take the tools and the skills and the resources of every kind that you have, and go out, find something that you know is not fair, is not just, and begin to change it. In whatever way you know, in whatever way is appropriate for you, but don’t ignore it. Don’t think it’s somebody else’s job to change it. Confront it in your own way, and make it your job to make change.
Lessons from Anita Hill on Courage and Leadership
About Anita Hill
Anita Hill began her law career in private practice in Washington, D.C. In 1989, Hill became the first African American to be tenured at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where she taught Contracts and Commercial Law. In 1991, she testified at the Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, gaining national exposure when her allegations of sexual harassment were made public. Currently, at Brandeis University, she teaches civil rights courses. As counsel to Cohen Milstein, Hill advises on class-action workplace discrimination cases.
Hill is the subject of Freida Lee Mock’s documentary Anita, which premiered in January 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival. Hill’s latest book is Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. She has also written her biography, Speaking Truth to Power, and coedited with professor Emma Coleman Jordan Race, Gender, and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings. Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Ms. Magazine have published Hill’s commentary, and she has appeared on many national television programs.