Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Anita Hill
In 1991, she challenged the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and changed the landscape for women in the workplace by bringing sexual harassment to the forefront. Anita Hill's latest book, "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home" (Beacon Press, $25.95 hardcover), looks at the housing crisis through a series of stories, some personal. Her own home experience created by a strong mother and father shaped much of who she has become. A lawyer and professor at Brandeis University, Ms. Hill, 55, will be in Pittsburgh Thursday for the Allegheny County Bar Association's Women in the Law Division luncheon and talk, "Coping With Change." For information call 412-402-6612.
This interview was conducted before the story broke last week regarding allegations that Republican presidential front-runner Herman Cain made unwanted sexual overtures to women while he led the National Restaurant Association more than 10 years ago. Since then, pundits have pointed out similarities between Mr. Cain and Justice Thomas. In fact, the attorney for one woman whose allegations led to a paid severance agreement said she won't speak publicly about the claim, explaining: "She has a life to live and a career, and she doesn't want to become another Anita Hill."
Where did you get the courage to stand up to Clarence Thomas when nobody was doing that kind of thing or talking about it?
In the hearings, it came from the fact that I knew how much was at stake when we start talking about a position on the Supreme Court, which is a lifetime appointment for someone who will be determining the rights and really the access and opportunities of a whole population. I know that the role of every Supreme Court justice is a critical role. I've taught the law, and I understand how significant the law is.
Knowing how important the Supreme Court is, I knew that I had a responsibility to testify about the character of an individual who was going to be sitting on the court with a lifetime appointment. Where did it come from beyond that? I just felt responsible. I felt responsible to do it in a way that had integrity, but it really came from my responsibility to the court, and a sense that this was such an important decision and that I had information that was integral to the decision, and [it was] my obligation to deliver that information to the judiciary committee.
Have you followed his career since he was appointed?
It's not what I've devoted my life to because, frankly, I think there are people who can be more objective about his career than I can. But I read in the paper what his decisions are and the tone of his decisions and the impact of his role in the court.
You've taken your celebrity, so to speak, and put it toward helping others.
It is part of my life's work. It wasn't as though I said I am going to use what happened in 1991 to do this. It is part of a body of work that I have been engaged in throughout my career. I do believe that "Reimagining Equality" brings together different aspects of my life. It is part personal, part analysis. It's part an analysis of popular culture and literature.
So bringing all of those things together and being able to talk about it -- the absolutely pressing issue of home ownership and simply the role of home in moving us toward equality -- being able to do that really is a privilege.
From your new book, it is clear your mother set up the home as a base of security so you could succeed.
I think that's a big part of what she did and with giving us a home base, if you will, there came a lot of other messages about achievement. Part of what she was doing, perhaps, was modeling for us by having her own home, and maintaining her own home. Along with that, saying, 'Well, now, you must get an education and you have to work hard (which she also modeled) and with that you will have a good start in life. It's not going to be everything, but it's going to be a start.'
Your older sister went to college before Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), while there still was segregation. What about your other siblings?
Every one of us went to college. My brothers took a different route. Six of my seven brothers went to the military, either the Army or the Air Force. They went to college after being enlisted men.
Your mother had to be a visionary.
I think she was, and I often wonder how my mother's life would have been different had she lived in a different time and even a different place. If she had been in a city where she could have had access to a better education for herself, as well as for her children. If she had been born in a time maybe 20 or 30 years later, I think she would have been quite successful outside of the home as well as inside.
She placed her emphasis on education. Do you think too many people put the emphasis on materialism and used their homes as banks instead of a place of shelter and that played a part in the housing market collapse?
Let me say this: I think there has always been the home as a symbol of achievement. That symbol has taken, I believe, dangerous turns. In the 1960s, for example, the average home size was about 900 to 1,000 square feet. In 2010, the size of an average new home was roughly 2,200 to 2,300 square feet. So the size of the home has changed.
The ideal home, if you have such a thing, is changed from two or three bedrooms to something much larger. More bedrooms and three-car garages, and all of those things have made home more a symbol of opulence as opposed to shelter and security and as a place to start building your dreams. Now what is really problematic is the size of the homes has increased, the price of homes has increased and the income has not increased.
People did draw on the value of their home. They pulled money out of their home to purchase, for example, new cars to work, to send their children to college. We know the price of college has skyrocketed. Income wasn't keeping up, so a number things have happened, some of which we had no control over.
Do you think President Obama has done enough to serve the displaced Americans who are being forced out or will be?
I think he has started with perhaps the easiest of problems to solve -- those people who are still current on their loans, who are underwater but are current, and trying to keep those individuals in their homes through renegotiating loans and making sure banks will go in and work with those individuals with a program that will help them do so. But I don't think enough is being done for individuals who have already fallen way behind on their loans.
Keeping homes affordable, (the policy) Making Homes Affordable was not a bad idea. I just don't think it has gone far enough. You have a population of people who still want to believe in the American dream, but they are being priced out of it. You've got vulnerable communities, communities of color or just communities of people who are just not making incomes that will keep up with the price of homes. You've got families headed by single parents, and for a lot of the housing options that are safe and secure it takes two incomes. We are pricing people out of the American dream. We haven't really begun to address those people and the next generation of home buyers.
In your book you talk about how in one generation your family went from property (slaves) to owning property and what a big step that was.
That was monumental in my family history, monumental, so much so that for generations we talked about it. I wonder how true that will be for future generations.
How do you measure your place in history?
Wow, well what I've tried to do with "Reimagining Equality" is really trying to give voice, through the stories that I tell, for people who have not been given a voice in the public debate during the foreclosure crisis. I believe what my legacy is if you go back even to the Thomas hearings is being able to give voice and articulate the concerns of people who have not been represented in the public discussion.
First Published November 7, 2011 12:00 am