‘A real mockery here’: During packed Utah lecture, Anita Hill criticizes the Senate’s handling of Kavanaugh nomination, draws parallels to her 1991 testimony

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People arrive to hear Anita Hill speak at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Wednesday Sept. 26, 2018.

One senator told her that she would face “actual harassment” if she didn’t stop talking about her allegations of sexual misconduct. Another called her story “crap.” A third dismissed her as an erotomaniac who believed everyone was in love with her. And Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, she distinctly recalled, brought a copy of “The Exorcist” to the hearing to suggest she had “somehow plagiarized” her account.

Those reactions, Anita Hill told a Salt Lake City audience Wednesday night, have stuck with her in the 27 years since she testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her when they had worked together.

Now, she said she’s seeing them emerge again as the Senate Judiciary Committee — which still has a handful of the same members, including Hatch — weighs confirming Brett Kavanaugh amid accusations from multiple women that echo Hill’s own experience.

“We have seen and heard many of these same answers for the women coming forward now. … You will hear the senators say things like, ‘This is just a he-said, she-said situation’ and ‘You can’t know the truth,’” she said to a packed room — all 600 seats were filled, dozens of people stood against the wall and hundreds didn’t make the cut to get inside for the University of Utah lecture. “Well, they’re setting it up to be that again.”

Hill spoke about the two parallel cases just hours before the judiciary committee will hear testimony from Kavanaugh and one of the women, Christine Blasey Ford, on Thursday morning.

Kavanaugh is President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee to fill the seat of retired Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Earlier this month, Ford, a California research psychologist, came forward alleging that Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school. She has said that he got drunk, pinned her down and touched her inappropriately during a party and that she escaped before he could remove her clothes.

Kavanaugh responded: “I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone.”

Since then, there have been three more complaints against the nominee regarding sexual misconduct. One woman said that he exposed himself to her during a party when they were freshman at Yale. A second said she had observed Kavanaugh at parties where he and other men gave female attendees alcohol or drugs and then “gang raped” them.

Hill said that it would be “inappropriate” to directly compare her experience with Thomas to that of those women with Kavanaugh. But she sees connections in the way politicians have reacted. Hatch, for instance, has said that Ford is “mistaken” in her allegations. Others have criticized Ford for not reporting sooner.

“When you think about why women don’t report, think about the toll that it could take,” she said. “We know that the reporting is not immediate. I think that’s a lesson that’s been lost on some of our public figures as they discuss the Kavanaugh nomination.”

Hill believes, too, the hearings will not be fair because there has been no formal investigation by the FBI. And like in her case, she said, senators are rushing rather that “getting to the truth.” They’re not calling in experts. They’re not, as of yet, hearing from more than one of the accusers. What they are doing, she said, is conducting “a real mockery here.”

“That’s a commentary really on values,” she said. “I hope that we can all be open to hearing [Ford] and evaluating based on what we hear and without the lens of the myths that have followed this hearing.”

Hill, 62, now a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, worked with Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In October 1991, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that in those offices, he talked to her about pornographic material and “his own sexual prowess.”

Her testimony gripped the nation and divided politicians. But it did not derail the appointment.

Thomas, nominated by George H.W. Bush, denied the allegations as “high-tech lynching.” He was confirmed to the bench with a 52-48 vote, the narrowest for a Supreme Court nominee in modern history. He is now an associate justice.

Hill said she decided to speak out to provide “evidence of Judge Thomas’ character and lack of fitness.” She doesn’t regret it. “For me, the integrity of the court was the issue.”

Her Wednesday lecture, called “From Social Movement to Social Impact: Ending Sexual Harassment,” also focused on the #MeToo movement that last year sparked a national reckoning over sexual assault and harassment, roiling Hollywood and Capitol Hill, steamrolling a handful of statehouses and continuing to spread beyond. Those in power, she said, continue to have an open pathway to abuse those in lower positions.

“Anita Hill was the original ‘me’ of the #MeToo movement,” said Bob Goldberg, director of the Tanner Humanities Center, which hosted the lecture.

U. President Ruth Watkins added that Hill’s experience "could not be more relevant for our time.”

One woman held a sign that said, “#MeToo Believe Survivors.” Others whistled and cheered when Hill said this is a historic moment with the potential to reshape women’s experiences with misconduct in the workplace.

After her testimony on Thomas, she said, there were some small changes, some pieces of legislation, some support for women to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But: “We just didn’t want to deal with the harshness of the problem or the complexities of the problem.”

Now, Hill said, it has reached “a human crisis level,” and there is focus on changing how people rise to power, assessing how rampant sexual harassment is and addressing the culture behind it. Maybe, she said, that conversation just hasn’t reached all of the nation’s senators yet.

“There are a lot of things that they don’t know,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is one that they resist being educated on.”