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A sense of belonging

Law professor Anita Hill, scolded and hailed for speaking up, talks about sexual harassment, her foundations, and the concept of home.

Professor Anita Hill alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in October 1991. (Greg Gibson / Associated Press)
Professor Anita Hill alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in October 1991. (Greg Gibson / Associated Press)Read moreGREG GIBSON / Associated Press

Hear the name Anita Hill and you think of a young law professor telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her at work.

Twenty years later, Hill has shifted her focus away from the office in a new book that looks at the connection between home and equality.

"Home is not just a place, it's also a state of being," Hill explains. In Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home (Beacon Press, $25.95), she examines the importance of home both to her own family and to other African American women.

She's scheduled to discuss the book at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library on Wednesday night.

Among the women Hill writes about are Biddy Mason, who was freed from slavery in the mid-1800s and spent $250 for a lot in California, and Lorraine Hansberry, whose play A Raisin in the Sun is based on the experience of Hansberry's family when they bought a home in an all-white neighborhood in 1930s Chicago.

On the phone from her Massachusetts home, Hill sounds like the academic she is as she describes how she wanted to research her family history and place it in a larger framework of meaning.

She heard growing up in Oklahoma that her grandparents had owned a farm in Arkansas, in the area where they had been enslaved.

"To me, that was an extraordinary story," she says, and she craved to know how much of the story was true.

Hill found out they had gotten the farm through the Homestead Act. She couldn't determine exactly how they lost the land, though it occurred amid post-slavery racial violence and home-financing arrangements that were "completely one-sided agreements."

Looking back made Hill think of subprime mortgages and other shaky credit agreements that have contributed to African American women and others' losing their homes through foreclosures.

"What I'm concerned about is what I saw in my own family's experience. What happened to my grandparents when they lost their farm affected generations to come," she says. "It affected how we lived and where we lived and how we think of home."

A community could be hostile, a home unsafe. Hill came to admire still more how her mother and grandmother persevered in creating a nurturing refuge for their children, wherever they were living.

That environment helped young Anita move away to attend college and law school.

In today's housing crisis, she says, "What I'm really concerned about is the next generation. We haven't begun to talk about these issues."

Even as she discusses her book, she cannot avoid questions about her role in the Thomas confirmation hearings. Hill, then a University of Oklahoma law professor, testified about times when, she said, Thomas asked her out on dates and repeatedly talked about sex and pornographic films while he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Thomas denied the charges. Some on the panel, including then-Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, aggressively tried to rip holes in Hill's story before confirming Thomas to a seat on the high court.

It was a she said/he said/they said drama that captivated the country - leaving some to castigate Hill and defend Thomas, and others to be furious about the way she was treated. Many labeled the hearing a milestone in gender relations.

Accusations and admissions of politicians' bad behavior continue. This year, ex-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, admitted he had fathered a child out of wedlock, and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, conceded he had posted on Twitter a lewd photo of himself, and sent sexually charged communications to a number of women.

Most recently, several women accused Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain of sexually harassing them. Cain suspended his bid Saturday, while denying any inappropriate conduct.

During his campaign, Cain likened himself to fellow black conservative Thomas, and joked about whether Hill would endorse him.

Hill, senior adviser to the provost and a professor of social policy, law, and women's studies at Brandeis University, would not comment on Cain or specific accusations against any politician, except to say "the common denominator is the power of the politics involved."

More generally, she says, "I don't think men are more indiscreet. I think they're doing what they have done for years. I think in the past, there was an underreaction."

Her appearance at the Thomas hearing cracked the silence about sexual harassment in the workplace, in part by making it hard for the media to ignore rumors of politicians' sexual improprieties, Hill says. Harassment victims were heartened by the conversation on national television.

"I think my testimony started a process" that encouraged women to come forward with their experiences and expect that their workplaces would not be hostile environments. Now, she says, such accusations are not automatically dismissed.

Considering how a conversation, probably any conversation, about her book turns to talking about her Senate testimony, does Hill regret she spoke at the hearing?

No, she says.

"Who knows what my life would be if, in fact, I were living with knowing that I had information relevant to the appointment of an individual, for a lifetime, to the high court," but said nothing?

"I think that would have weighed heavily on me."

Instead, she says, sounding very much at home with herself, "Twenty years later, I am so grateful when I talk to people who say they have found a voice and that it started with those hearings."