Twenty years ago this month the nation watched the live spectacle of the Clarence Thomas – Anita Hill hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was considering the fitness of Judge Thomas to fill the enormous shoes left on the U.S. Supreme Court by the resignation of Justice Thurgood Marshall.
At the time Thomas was a federal judge with limited legal experience, appointed to take the Marshall seat by President George H.W. Bush. Although there was opposition, Thomas was considered a shoo-in for the Supreme Court, that is, until Anita Hill was called to testify. She said he sexually harassed her when she worked for him. He said she was lying. I would suggest he was lying when he told the Judiciary Committee that he didn’t have an opinion on Roe v. Wade. Never thought about it, he stated.
Anita Hill, now a law professor at Brandeis University, invited me to participate in a conference at Georgetown University Law School marking the 20th anniversary of those remarkable hearings. She wanted me to speak from a media perspective because I had anchored live coverage of the hearings for ABC News. I shared the platform with members of her legal team, feminists and political scholars. We discussed the historic “He Said/She Said” hearings that proved to be a pivotal social event in U.S. history.
In October of 1991, Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas at two federal agencies in Washington, was called to testify under oath about her allegations that the Supreme Court nominee had sexually harassed her. In excruciating detail, Hill calmly described incidents in which Thomas made her uncomfortable and embarrassed with his talk of porno movies and penis size. The all-white, all-male senators were dubious, questioning her veracity and dismissing her as if she were merely trying to derail Thomas for revenge. It was painful for millions of women to watch, who like myself, had experienced even worse sexual harassment in the work place. Buttons popped up on the lapels of women all over Washington reading, “I Believe Her.” That the male senators did not, was obvious.
The Judiciary Committee chaired by then Senator Joe Biden, allowed Thomas to testify after Prof. Hill, not the usual practice in such hearings. He gave an impassioned rebuttal to her charges against him and said the hearings were a “high tech lynching for uppity blacks.” That seemed enough to sway the Senate, which, in a close vote, confirmed Thomas to a lifetime job on the High Court.
What Thomas and the Senate could not have predicted was the reaction of women to watching a group of males treat Anita Hill in such a patronizing and “wink and nod” manner. Women realized that men just don’t get it. There was a new national awareness of the issue of sexual harassment and increasingly women filed complaints against their abusive male bosses. But of utmost importance, women decided more of them had to run for political office. The following year, 1992, was called, “The Year of the Woman.” Eleven ran for the U.S. Senate and five were elected. In the House, 24 women won seats. There were similar results at the state and local levels, where women ran for office in unprecedented numbers.
Justice Thomas has been sitting on the Supreme Court for 20 years now garnering a reputation as the most conservative justice on the Court. He’s only 54, so he’s likely to be deciding cases for at least another 20 years. Oh, my.
Anita Hill continues to thrive as a professor and practicing attorney, with a new book just published on race and gender equality. She has tried to put Clarence Thomas behind her, but it’s not clear that Thomas has put Anita Hill behind him.
Why would his wife, Virginia, leave a voice mail on Prof. Hill’s office phone last year, asking her to apologize and give a full explanation of “why she did what she did with her husband?” Maybe Mrs. Thomas is just a jealous and zealous wife, or maybe the thorny issue of the attractive Anita Hill has never been resolved in the Thomas household.