explainer

The story of Anita Hill, who 30 years ago stood up to one of the most powerful men in America.

Anita Hill was 25 when she met Clarence Thomas through a mutual friend.

The youngest of 13 children born in 1956, Hill’s childhood in Okmulge, Oklahoma was one of “work and poverty”.

She is the daughter of African American farmers – they didn’t have much money, but Hill says the solid family affection and Baptist values she was surrounded by growing up was a warm part of her life.

Determination and hard work saw the then-teenager study at Oklahoma State University before graduating from Yale Law School in 1980.

She was a practising lawyer with a Washington, D. C. firm, Wald, Hardraker and Ross, when a then-33-year-old Thomas, the newly promoted assistant secretary of Education for civil rights, asked her to come work for him as his assistant. She accepted.

The first three months of their working relationship was an exciting period of Hill’s career. She says she had a great deal of responsibility and independence in her role, and felt her boss respected her work and trusted her judgement.

Then, Thomas asked her on a date.

She didn’t know it at the time, but that ill-fated invitation ignited decades of sleepless nights and agony at the hands of one man.

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Justice Clarence Thomas, the man who allegedly tormented Anita Hill over a three-year period. Image: Getty.

Hill says she was "very uncomfortable with the idea" and declined the invitation to go out socially with her boss.

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"I explained to him that I thought it would jeopardise - what at the time I considered to be a very good working relationship," she said.

"I thought that by saying no and explaining my reasons, my employer would abandon his social suggestions. However, to my regret, in the following few weeks, he continued to ask me out on several occasions."

Thomas wouldn't accept no for an answer. It was almost like Hill's rejection made him more determined to pursue a relationship with her outside of the workplace. In the weeks that followed, Thomas continued to press his employee for reasons to justify her decision not to go out with him.

He would come into her office, or demand she come into his, so as not to have the uncomfortable  and inappropriate conversations overheard by their colleagues. Hill says their working relationship became even more strained when Thomas started talking about sex with her in the office.

"On these occasions he would call me into his office for reports on education issues and projects, or he might suggest that because of the time pressures of his schedule we go to lunch to a government cafeteria. After a brief discussions of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters," she said.

"His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.

"He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involving various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess."

These conversations, which Hill never consented to being involved in, made her feel extremely uncomfortable. This was her boss, a man who could destroy her career in seconds and had complete and unyielding power over her life.

Hill tried changing the subject to non-sexual matters. She asked him questions about himself, like where he grew up and what his family were like. She even told Thomas in no uncertain terms that she did not want to talk about or hear about anything to do with his sexual experiences.

And for a few months, her efforts were successful. When Thomas was again promoted, this time, ironically, to chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Hill made the difficult decision to go with him. It seemed as if he had finally gotten the message.

But he hadn't. In the winter of 1982, Hill says Thomas' inappropriate advances started back up again.

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Anita Hill right before testifying against her alleged abuser in 1991. Image: Getty.
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"The comments were random and ranged from pressing me about why I didn't go out with him to remarks about my personal appearance. I remember him saying that some day I would have to tell him the real reason that I wouldn't go out with him," she said.

"He commented on what I was wearing in terms of whether it made me more or less sexually attractive. On other occasions, he referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal, and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex."

Hill was becoming severely stressed because of this work environment. At this point, she knew she had to get out from under Thomas and find a new job. In 1983, an opportunity to teach at Oklahoma's Oral Roberts University opened up. She took it, relieved to finally put her experiences with Thomas behind her.

In contrast to what she was expecting, her boss seemed to be pleased when she gave him her resignation. She would no longer have an excuse not to go out with him, he said.

Reluctantly, Hill accepted a dinner invitation from Thomas on her last day at the EEOC. She had been assured it was purely a professional curtsy, and they went directly from the office to a restaurant nearby.

They spoke about the work they had done together, and of Hill's professional achievements under his guidance. Then, Thomas told her if she ever told anyone of his behaviour or the sexual advances he'd made towards her, he'd ruin her career.

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These are the words Hill spoke with conviction when she testified to the years of sexual harassment she experienced from Thomas in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 11, 1991.

The then-35-year-old did so fielding questions and accusations from the 14 white men who'd later decide if her abuser would go on to hold one of the most powerful positions in the country, a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

A position on the country's highest judicial tribunal, with the authority to rule on matters of rape and sexual assault, how long a man will sit in jail for assaulting or murdering their partner, and whether a woman can abort an unwanted pregnancy.

Her words were powerful and galvanising for women and people of colour of the time. In response to Hill's courage, 1,600 African-American women took out an ad in The New York Times to indicate their support, The Conversation reports.

You can listen to Anita Hill's testimony below. Post continues after video...

Ultimately, those same words were futile. Clarence Thomas' nomination for Justice of the Supreme Court was accepted. He still sits on the bench in 2018.

On Thursday US time, Dr Christine Blasey Ford testified against US President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who she alleges sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

When telling the committee of how Kavanaugh, a far right conservative, allegedly attempted to rape her 36 years ago, she did so looking out onto a scene eerily similar to the one Hill saw in 1991.

Many of the men who vilified Hill almost 30 years ago practically sat in the exact same seats, making the same judgements towards yet another woman they refuse to believe.

28 years after Hill became the first woman to testify against a Supreme Court Justice nominee, many are saying things have changed.

But have they?

We know the consequences of women speaking out about their abusers are real. In the hours after Dr Ford's testimony, America's Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network saw a 147 per cent surge of calls to its helpline.

This week, Bill Cosby was convicted of drugging and raping Andrea Constand. He will serve between three and 10 years behind bars.

Harvey Weinstein is facing criminal charges after the #MeToo movement saw 87 women accuse him of sexual harassment and assault over three decades. The former Hollywood producer has been charged with rape, sexual misconduct, sex abuse and the committing of a criminal sex act against two women.

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Countless other men have been held accountable for the years - decades, in some cases - of sexual harassment and assault against women both at home and in the work place.

In the coming days, we will find out if the courage of women like Anita Hill and Dr Ford will have achieved the ultimate goal of blocking Kavanaugh's acceptance to the Supreme Court.

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Dr Christine Blasey Ford is sworn in prior to giving testimony. Image: Getty.

Regardless of which way Kavanaugh's nomination goes, Dr Ford has again galvanised the women of America and the world to continue to speak out, to tell their stories, and most importantly, for both men and women to believe women.

It's not easy. It never will be. But all these years later, Anita Hill's words still ring true.

"It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent."

If you or anyone you know is experiencing workplace harassment or sexual assault, please seek professional help and contact 1800 RESPECT on 

For more on Anita Hill, Dr Christine Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, we unpack the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh on our Trump podcast.

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