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In October 1991, Americans were riveted by the spectacle of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee questioning Anita Hill, the African-American law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
TV viewers, both male and female, watched in increasing discomfort as the senators asked Hill about large-breasted women, a porn star named Long Dong Silver and pubic hair on a Coke can, among other previously unthinkable subjects for a Senate committee hearing.
But for women, Hill’s testimony would have special significance, as it was the first time someone had so publicly shared her account of workplace harassment—something that so many of them had experienced.
Listen to audio of Anita Hill's testimony here.
Though the committee would eventually confirm Thomas, making him only the second Black man to serve on the Supreme Court, the impact of Hill’s televised testimony would reverberate dramatically across the nation, with lasting consequences that endure today.
“I think women saw play out, in the most human terms, Anita Hill—credible and very much reflecting the experiences of so many other women—being demeaned, being dismissed and being mistreated by an array of male senators,” says Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president emerita of the National Women’s Law Center. “And when they reflected upon it at the end of the hearings, their anger began to rise, and their determination to do something about it began to increase.”
Both Thomas and Hill had risen from poor rural childhoods in segregated America, graduated from Yale Law School and launched promising legal careers in Washington, D.C. Their paths converged at the U.S. Department of Education in 1981, when Thomas hired Hill to be his special assistant in the department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Shortly after that, according to Hill, Thomas began harassing her, a pattern that would continue after Thomas left his post to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and Hill moved with him to continue as his assistant.
Hill, who left Washington in 1983 and became a law professor in her native Oklahoma, was initially reluctant to come forward with her allegations against Thomas. But in the late summer of 1991, she was contacted by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who had heard rumors of possible misconduct by Thomas against at least one female employee in his past. After a three-day FBI investigation led the White House to determine the allegations were “unfounded,” the reporter Nina Totenberg of NPR learned of the FBI report and revealed Hill’s accusations to the public for the first time.
On October 11, Hill testified before the committee that Thomas had asked her out repeatedly and that even after she refused, often talked to her in graphic detail about sex. Throughout the brutally uncomfortable questioning by senators, Hill retained her composure, even when forced to repeat again and again the most disturbing and embarrassing parts of Thomas' alleged harassment. Years later, the committee’s Democratic chairman, Joe Biden, would publicly apologize to Hill for not protecting her from his fellow senators’ grilling.
Thomas vehemently denied Hill’s allegations and invoked racial discrimination, calling the hearing “a national disgrace...a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” imagining Thomas’ harassment, or of committing “flat-out perjury,” in the words of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah even accused her of borrowing the Coke can incident from the 1971 novel The Exorcist. Despite Hill’s testimony, and that of four corroborating witnesses who said she talked with them about Thomas’ behavior at the time, the Senate voted to confirm Thomas 52-48, the narrowest margin in nearly a century.
Yet Hill’s testimony had an immediate impact in other ways. “She sparked conversations among women that they had never had before about experiences that they realized were shared by so many others,” Greenberger says. “This was the first time that they saw they weren't alone, both by her telling her own story, and then by their discussing their stories with their friends and family.”
Phones at the National Women’s Law Center began ringing off the hook, Greenberger remembers, as women sought legal advice to deal with the sexual harassment that they had faced. Claims of sexual harassment filed with the EEOC shot up, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which gave victims of workplace sexual harassment more legal recourse. State laws began to change as well, and anti-sexual harassment programs became the norm in offices across the country.
READ MORE: How Anita Hill’s Confirmation Hearing Testimony Brought Workplace Sexual Harassment to Light
In 1992, the year after Hill testified, a record number of female politicians were elected to office, part of what became known as the “Year of the Woman.” Twenty-four women won election to the House of Representatives (which more than doubled the total number of female representatives at the time) and four women were elected to the Senate, bringing the total number to six.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who first won election during that momentous year, would become the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee by 2018, when the committee confronted another charge of sexual misconduct, made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, against another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
Through the intervening decades, sexual misconduct has figured prominently in U.S. politics and culture. President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his relationship with the young White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, was exposed as making lewd advances on women with the public release of a recorded tape. And Americans have seen the rise of the #MeToo movement, alongside the revelations of sexual misconduct and harassment on the part of numerous powerful men in entertainment, politics, business and other fields.
“I think that #MeToo has roots in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing, in Anita Hill's extraordinary testimony, and in the strength of her character,” says Greenberg. “On the other hand, I also think that progress is not always linear, and there are fits and starts along the way.
According to Greenberger, Hill is an “icon” and a “national leader,” who still has an important role to play in the changed America her testimony helped create. For her part, Hill wrote in the New York Times about the high stakes that accompany the Kavanaugh hearings, and her advice for how the Senate Judiciary Committee could handle them differently than in 1991.
“With years of hindsight, mounds of evidence of the prevalence and harm that sexual violence causes individuals and our institutions,” she wrote, “as well as a Senate with more women than ever, ‘not getting it’ isn’t an option for our elected representatives. In 2018, our senators must get it right.”
What Has Been the Impact of Anita Hill?
Twenty years ago Anita Hill, University of Oklahoma law professor and private citizen, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and threw a giant monkey wrench into the well-oiled, old-boys machine that was rubber-stamping Clarence Thomas' confirmation to the Supreme Court. Of course, to the shock and lingering dismay of many (Thurgood Marshall still sits somewhere shaking his head), Thomas was confirmed, but not before Hill's charges that her former boss had made unwelcome lewd comments raised the issues of workplace sexual harassment and women's equality in the public consciousness.
Last Saturday, Hill supporters assembled a multiracial who's-who of some of the nation's brightest legal, scholarly and feminist minds — including scholars Charles Ogletree and Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School, Melissa Harris-Perry of Tulane University and Kimberlé Crenshaw of the African American Policy Forum. In a daylong conference at Hunter College in New York City, "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later," they explored the fault lines between race and gender equality and reflected on what has changed since Hill's revolutionary testimony — and what has not.
One Life Transformed
Hill herself took the stage as keynote speaker, and after an enthusiastic ovation, she shared, in an intimate talk with Columbia University law professor Patricia J. Williams, how profoundly her life was changed by the internationally televised hearings, in which an all-white, all-male panel of senators questioned her integrity and maligned her character and basically treated her like a criminal defendant.
Citing physical threats, psychological pressure and poll numbers showing that seven in 10 Americans believed she had lied, Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University, said, "I wanted my life back … and I resented the fact that I couldn't get it back." About six months after the October 1991 hearings, she said, she had to let go of that ideal of her life as a private citizen and figure out a different one "so I can continue to do what I do, to be productive … to continue to live."
What helped keep her on that path? In response to an audience member's question about facing fear, Hill said, "Every day I woke up knowing that the thing that caused me to be fearful — that testimony — that was the right thing to do."
Hill described her new book, Reimagining Equality : Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home, as the exploration of a certain concept as central to achieving the American dream: the concept of home as a safe space where women are valued, "an ideal state of being as much as a place which is re-imagined for each generation." Similarly, she said, "we should also imagine a workplace where sexual harassment no longer exists."
Gender or Racial Solidarity?
Speaker after speaker rallied the capacity crowd of 2,000, describing how Hill's testimony prompted an avalanche of sexual harassment complaints, inspired progressive women and men to strengthen anti-harassment measures and challenged assumptions that racial solidarity trumps gender solidarity. (Guinier: "Many of us had to deal with the ambivalence and the ignorance of the question, ɺre you black or are you a woman?' ") I scanned the audience of mostly white, mostly gray (or strategically covered gray) women and noticed a smattering of young black women throughout.
Black-white tensions have splintered the women's movement from the start — from black women's fight to be included in the suffrage campaigns at the start of the 20th century to black women sitting out today's "SlutWalk" protest marches against victim blaming in cases of sexual assault. At the same time, black women have been challenged to choose race over gender or gender over race, depending on with whom they were standing.
For young black women, I wondered, as one conference session was titled, "What Does Anita Hill Mean to You?" Jamia Wilson, 31, vice president of programs at the Women's Media Center, an event co-sponsor, gave a glimpse of that meaning. Wilson, who shared the stage with Guinier and law professors Judith Resnick of Yale and Catharine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan, said that she learned of Anita Hill by watching the infamous hearings on television with her family when she was 11 years old.
"It's something that forever changed who I am today," she said from the podium, describing the anger and passion that led her, as a tween, to proclaim at her parents' dinner party, "I believe Anita Hill, and I'm a feminist!" Rather than Clarence Thomas' claim of a "high-tech lynching," Wilson said, "It was a modern-day witch hunt."
After her presentation, Wilson told me, "I see Anita Hill as a feminist icon: She was one person who experienced what a lot of people experience every day. We were here in ➑, and we're still here in 2011 asking the same questions."
The Lessons for a New Generation
Laetitia Donnet, 26, a Hunter College junior studying romance languages, had never heard of Anita Hill until her political science professor suggested that she go to the conference. Her boyfriend, Sam Mbassa, 33, who attended with her, filled in the blanks.
Donnet, daughter of a Haitian mother and Belgian father, grew up in Belgium. "I've never felt discrimination as a woman, but know my mom was in positions of powerlessness," she said. "This helps to understand what challenges lie ahead. But it also helps me appreciate the steps that women have taken to protect women like me. It's inspiring."
For Nicole Clark, 28, a social worker who was 8 at the time of Hill's testimony, the conference reinforced the importance of having black women speak out as black people and as women. "It's especially difficult in the black community, where brothers and sisters have stood together to fight racism," she said, "but black men need to recognize that we have experiences that transcend race."
And perhaps, for some young women, the meaning of Anita Hill is just becoming clear. Tynisha Foster-Bey, a Hunter junior in women's studies and African-American history, was 3 when the hearings occurred. She didn't have much to say about the conference — a professor had suggested that she go, and she was taking it all in.
When asked if sheɽ ever experienced harassment, she initially said no. But she added that a young Asian woman at her workplace, a restaurant in Queens, had complained up the chain that a white male supervisor's sexual language, jokes and drawings made her feel uncomfortable. Staffers initially took their boss's side, Foster-Bey said, even though theyɽ also witnessed the inappropriate jokes. Foster-Bey saw the parallels between her co-worker and Anita Hill.
"She had some fears, but she did it anyway," she said. "And it worked out better for her because he was fired and she's still there." She thought for a moment and added, "I see her as a hero."
Crenshaw described the 20-year milestone as a "torch-passing moment" and urged the audience to link women's equality with racial equality, making it clear that the third wave of feminism was alive and well. It may even have a new hue.
Anita Hill should be pleased.
Editor's note: The video of "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later" can be seen on C-SPAN .
What They Didn't Tell You About Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas
It's been more than 20 years since Anita Hill took the stand in Clarence Thomas' Senate Judiciary Committee's Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearings, electrifying the nation. While Hill's allegations of Thomas' sexual misconduct didn't stop Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, her testimony unexpectedly sparked a continuing national conversation on sexual harassment.
Few young women today have heard of the person who transformed their professional world that includes Hill's own students at Brandeis University, where she currently teaches. Academy Award-winning director Freida Mock's new documentary,Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, aims to change that. The film, which opens to the general public on April 4, revisits that transformative moment in American social history. And it reveals that, since her moment of public courage, Ms. Hill has become a hero and model for those who do know her as a trailblazer, while thriving in her personal life.
Even those Americans who were glued to the televised hearings don't know the complicated backstory. Anita Hill's 1991 testimony did indeed launch a national conversation about sexual harassment and women's working conditions. But instead of a "he-said/she-said" narrative, with commentators taking sides based on their political views, the hearings could have been "he said/they said."
Another witness was waiting to testify against Thomas, with information that could have helped corroborate Hill's allegations. But Angela Wright, then a North Carolina journalist who had been subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and left waiting in a Washington hotel for three days, was never called to testify.
Wright heard Anita Hill and thought, "I believe her because he did it to me." Her testimony might have changed history. She was subpoenaed. Why wasn't she called to testify -- and what would she have said if she had been?
In 1994, Florence George Graves cleared up those mysteries in the Washington Post, revealing the intricate -- and bipartisan -- behind-the-scenes maneuvering by several Senate Judiciary Committee members to discourage Wright's testimony. The article, entitled "The Other Woman," uncovered a surprising agreement among top Republicans and Democrats not to call Wright, apparently because they feared either that her testimony would create even greater political chaos or that it would doom Thomas' nomination.
The article also revealed evidence suggesting that Thomas lied to the Committee. Several senators -- including then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, then-Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.), and several other key senators -- told Graves they believed that if Wright had testified, Thomas would not have been confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he has repeatedly voted to narrow the scope of sexual harassment law.
Ten years later, Graves delved even further into the facts of the Thomas confirmation hearings "Anita Hill -- The Complete Story," published in the Boston Globe Magazine in 2003, took a thorough look at the impact of Hill's testimony a decade after Thomas' confirmation. As Graves reported, while Hill was letting her life "speak for itself," more information -- much of it suppressed at the time -- was coming forth in her favor.
The newly disclosed facts illuminated a deeply flawed system for approving one of the most powerful officials in the United States: a lifetime appointment to our nation's Supreme Court.
Today Graves, like Anita Hill, is based at Brandeis University, where Graves launched and runs the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, an independent reporting center focused on social justice and human rights. The Schuster Institute carefully and thoroughly investigates issues affecting those who are poor, migrants, enslaved, powerless, voiceless, jailed, or forgotten, and produces stories that are local, national, and global in scope.
For still more background and information about Anita Hill, about the hearings' social impact, and about related facts and controversies, see the Anita Hill webpage at the Schuster Institute.
Former vice president Joe Biden repeatedly said on The View on Friday that he believed Anita Hill from the moment he heard her tale of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas. But he previously told Sen. Arlen Specter that it was clear her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee included lies.
“Not only didn’t I vote for Clarence Thomas, I believed her from the beginning. I was against Clarence Thomas, I did everything in my power to defeat Clarence Thomas and he won by the smallest margin anyone ever won going on the Supreme Court,” Biden told “The View’s” Joy Behar.
But in 1998, Biden admitted to Specter that “It was clear to me from the way she was answering the questions, [Hill] was lying” about a key part of her testimony. The exchange was published in Specter’s 2000 memoir, “Passion for Truth: From Finding JFK’s Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton.”
The issue is important, as the media and other partisans rewrite the historical record about Hill and her accusations. The widely watched hearings revealed inaccuracies in Hill’s various versions of events and ended with 58 percent of Americans believing Thomas and only 24 percent believing Hill. There was no gap between the sexes in the results. In the intervening years, activists have relentlessly attempted to change the narrative, writing fan fiction about Hill, bestowing honors on her, and asserting that her disputed allegations were credible.
On “The View,” Biden claimed, “If you go back and look at what I said and didn’t say, I don’t think I treated her badly. I took on her opposition. What I couldn’t figure out how to do — and we still haven’t figured it out – how do you stop people from asking inflammatory questions?”
Prominent media partisans attacked Specter for asking tough questions of Hill. Or really, just for asking simple questions she struggled to answer. He began by noting that many people had reported Hill had praised Thomas and his nomination to the Supreme Court. These included a former colleague at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where both Hill and Thomas had worked years prior. Another person corroborated the colleague’s claim.
Hill disputed their claims. She also disputed the former dean of her law school, who said she had praised Thomas as a “fine man and an excellent legal scholar.” Then she claimed she didn’t know a woman named Phyllis Barry, who had told The New York Times that Hill’s allegations “were the result of Ms. Hill’s disappointment and frustration that Mr. Thomas did not show any sexual interest in her.”
Under questioning from Specter, in which he mentioned that two colleagues had provided statements attesting that she knew Barry, Hill was forced to concede that she knew her and had worked with her at the EEOC.
Specter then asked about the major contradictions between her testimony to the Senate and her interviews with the FBI. Her testimony with the Senate was much more colorful and descriptive even though it took place just days after her FBI interviews.
Finally he asked Hill about a USA Today article that claimed, “Anita Hill was told by Senate staffers her signed affidavit alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas would be the instrument that ‘quietly and behind the scenes’ would force him to withdraw his name.”
Specter read from the article: “Keith Henderson, a 10-year friend of Hill and former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, says Hill was advised by Senate staffers that her charge would be kept secret and her name kept from public scrutiny.” Later it said, “They would approach Judge Thomas with the information and he would withdraw and not turn this into a big story, Henderson says.”
Specter asked her if this was true, attempting to find out what Senate Democrats had arranged with Hill. Nine times she denied the claim, demurred, or otherwise attempted to get away from the question. She said she could vividly remember events related to Thomas from many years prior, but couldn’t quite remember this conversation from weeks prior. Specter described the scene in the book, and even interviewed Biden about it:
After this exchange Biden recessed the committee. Biden told me in November 1998, ‘It was clear to me from the way she was answering the questions, she was lying.’
‘At that point I truncated the hearing and recessed it early for lunch,’ Biden said. ‘I turned to my chief of staff and said, ‘Go down and tell her lawyers that if her recollection is not refreshed by the time she gets back, I will be compelled to pursue the same line of questioning the Senator [Specter] did. Because it seems to me, she did what he said.’
Biden, as the committee’s chairman and top Democrat, would have carried great sway if he had suggested publicly that Hill was lying when she repeatedly answered questions about Thomas’s potential withdrawal by saying she didn’t remember.
Now that he’s running for president again, Biden may be trying to avoid the reality of Hill’s weak testimony or his role in encouraging her to answer the question forthrightly. But in 1991, when Hill came back from lunch, her story had changed.
“There was some indication that the candidate — excuse me — the nominee might not wish to continue the process,” Hill admitted. Asked to clarify whether a particular staffer had told her that Thomas “might not wish to continue to go forward with his nomination, if you came forward?” Hill again admitted, “Yes.”
The exchange was just one example of why so many Americans outside of the liberal media thought Hill lacked credibility. Specter credited Biden’s warning to Hill about her lies as helping her with her eroding credibility: “Hill’s afternoon modification of her morning testimony, therefore, was not only deliberate but calculated to avoid greater erosion to her credibility.”
There were many problems with Hill’s claims, including that the record showed she had followed Thomas from a protected service job at the Education Department to one at the EEOC. The Yale Law graduate claimed she was confused about whether she could keep her job at the Education Department. She’d also voluntarily accompanied him to a speech, and had repeatedly called him with pleasantries. Thomas’ secretary had kept logs of Hill’s many calls. One message simply said she was calling to check in, for example.
Two FBI special agents swore out an affidavit after Hill’s testimony outlining “contradictions” between her interviews with them and her testimony. Special Agent Jolene Smith Jameson wrote, “Professor Hill made comments that were in contradiction with statements she had made to SAs Jameson and John B. Luton.” They also disputed her characterization of how honest they instructed her to be.
The media, who have defended Hill for decades despite inconsistencies and inaccuracies in her story, are upset that Biden didn’t apologize to Hill. “Biden Struggles to Apologize for Anita Hill’s Treatment, Reassure Women,” read the headline for Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein’s “news” story.
On “The View,” one interlocutor told Biden that people were upset he hadn’t allowed other women to testify against Thomas. He explained that he tried to get them to testify, but there were problems and that forcing them to testify may have been worse for Hill. He was understating wildly, referring to the last woman mentioned in this summary of problems with Hill’s alleged witnesses:
Hill’s four alleged corroborating witnesses provided very weak testimony. One witness told Committee staff that the alleged harassment happened before Hill ever worked for Thomas. Another witness claimed that Hill had no political motives to oppose Thomas because she was a conservative who fully supported the Reagan Administration’s civil rights policies. This representation was false. Angela Wright, who many claimed would provide similar testimony as Hill, declined to testify because of serious credibility issues related to her motives and her previous efforts to falsely accuse a supervisor of racism.
Much revisionist history has been drafted by partisans who oppose Thomas’s judicial philosophy. It’s true that Biden did his best to help Hill, including concealing witnesses who would have been a disaster under examination. But even he admitted to his colleague Specter that Hill was lying.
Hill’s allegations against Thomas were far from convincing when she made them, and the passage of time has done nothing to bolster the veracity of her accusations. But based on the uncritical acceptance of the revisionist history of the Clarence Thomas hearings, it’s crystal clear that journalists would do well to familiarize themselves with the actual facts of what happened and call Biden to account for his treatment of Thomas.
3) The Unrelenting Push to Change History
Partisans have never quite gotten over their inability to derail Justice Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court. “Confirmation” isn’t even the first one-sided TV movie about the saga. Showtime did one in 1999 based on the book by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson. Jane Mayer, who has elevated unfair hit pieces to an art form, is known in recent years for her campaigns against the Koch brothers. Abramson was recently let go as executive editor of The New York Times and is now writing for The Guardian. A favorite recent column is her March 28 piece headlined, “This may shock you: Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest.” Speaking of Hillary Clinton, Mayer is apparently cozy enough with her people to tip her off to unpublished stories in The New York Times (where Mayer’s husband is the Washington editor).
The original story was pushed by Nina Totenberg, easily NPR’s most biased reporter. As one great journalist put it, “I think the thing that I would criticize Nina for is that she is simply a partisan.” She is perhaps most well-known for wishing a Republican senator would get AIDS, but her bias is usually much more subtle and nuanced. Totenberg, a Supreme Court reporter, is known for her friendships with liberal activists and judges. Her activism on the Anita Hill story won her all the awards that journalists love to bestow on one another, as well as the disrespect from those who wish the media weren’t so in the tank on abortion and other progressive causes.
Even though the public overwhelmingly believed Thomas and his bevy of supporting witnesses over Hill, the media never got over his confirmation. The media and progressives never hid their belief that Thomas, a black man with views they don’t think black men should be allowed to have, is dangerous. Whether they even believed Hill’s claims is uncertain. What is certain is that they have used those discredited claims in their campaign to defame the man. It would simply be sad if it weren’t so damaging.
Hill is doing a round of media interviews to promote the film, and Totenberg and Abramson are happy to talk about it as well. The folks who don’t get the special treatment offered to political allies are so appalled by the fiction being passed off as history that they’re threatening legal action.
As one Twitter user noted:
Ironic that the Anita Hill HBO movie tag line includes the phrase “to change history.”
neontaster (@neontaster) March 23, 2016
That is the goal of such productions. Revise the facts to fit the narrative and rewrite history. They did it with the laughably bad reimagining of Dan Rather’s demise, and they do it here.
Timeline: A history of the Joe Biden-Anita Hill controversy
Joe Biden Joe BidenSenate Republicans urge CDC to lift public transportation mask mandate AOC said she doubts Biden's win would have been certified if GOP controlled the House Overnight Defense: Intel releases highly anticipated UFO report | Biden meets with Afghan president | Conservatives lash out at Milley MORE ’s presidential campaign launch is putting a new spotlight on the former vice president’s handling of Anita Hill Anita Faye HillJoe Biden's surprising presidency Gloria Steinem: 'International Women's Day means we are still in trouble' 'Lucky': Kerry Washington got a last-minute switch in DNC lineup MORE ’s 1991 Senate testimony about alleged sexual harassment from then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Here’s a look back at a controversy that has hung over the country for three decades and will be a big part of the story surrounding Biden — now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
1991: The explosive hearing
Biden's handling of the explosive hearing before a panel of white men has long been a subject of criticism.
The then-Senate Judiciary Committee chairman allowed Thomas to testify before Hill — after initially saying Hill would get to testify first.
He did not take testimony from three women who offered their own stories about Thomas.
Hill claimed that Thomas had repeatedly asked her to go out with him and would not respect her rejections. Additionally, she said he would talk about sex and pornography in vivid detail during workplace conversations.
Republican members of the panel sought to discredit her testimony, and Biden was criticized for not doing more to defend Hill. One member, former Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), said discussing "large breasts" in the workplace was common.
Race also hung over the hearing, which involved an African American woman making allegations against Thomas, an African American man nominated to succeed Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black member of the court.
Thomas was eventually confirmed by a 52-48 vote in the Senate. Biden did not vote in favor of his confirmation.
1992: Harassment complaints rise, women win office
The Thomas-Hill hearings were watched by the country and put workplace sexual harassment under the microscope.
The next year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission logged a record 9,920 harassment complaints, a 50 percent increase over the previous year.
A then-record number of women were elected to serve in Congress in the 1992 election, with four women elected to the Senate and 24 to the House.
Eight months after the hearings, Biden told The Washington Post that he worried he had not "attacked the attackers" of Hill "more frequently and consistently."
However, he said he couldn’t have acted differently toward Thomas without violating "the basic values embodied in our constitutional system."
"That's what makes me mad about the Republicans," Biden said in the June 1992 interview.
"What they do is they put you in a position on so many matters of principle that in order to fight with them and have a chance of winning, you have to either have the ability to go right above the issue, or you've got to do it the way they do it and disregard the rules," he added.
1994: Biden helps win passage of Violence Against Women Act
The landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), co-sponsored by Biden and first proposed in 1990, passed in 1994 as part of the senator’s crime bill.
The legislation authorized government funding for social service agencies to aid victims of sexual violence, including rape crisis centers, shelters and legal assistance programs.
Joseph Pika, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, said Biden was likely motivated to push it through at least in part by the Hill hearing.
"He very self-consciously tried to shore up his support from women voters after the Anita Hill episode," Pika told USA Today in 2008.
1997: Hill criticizes Biden
In Anita Hill’s biography, "Speaking Truth To Power," she criticized Biden’s role in the hearings, suggesting he inappropriately weighted Thomas’s presumed innocence and forced her to go into details that "disgusted" her.
"The senators’ tendency toward ad hoc rulemaking weighed in heavily against fairness," she wrote.
2007: Biden's biography skips Hill
Biden released a biography called "Promises To Keep" ahead of his 2008 presidential run that did not mention Hill or Thomas’s confirmation.
Biden also authored and introduced the International Violence Against Women Act, which would have expanded many protections of VAWA internationally and called for support of United Nations projects to combat violence against women and girls.
2008: Biden says others were to blame
During the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Biden suggested in a CNN interview that other parties were to blame for any mistakes in how the Hill hearing was handled.
"The president insisted it be opened. Not me. The Clarence Thomas' people insisted it be opened," Biden said in September. "What I would do all over again, I think that should have been conducted in a way under the Senate rules where the witness should have been able to do this in private."
2010: Thomas's wife asks Hill for an apology
In a moment that highlighted how the hearings shadowed public life, Virginia Thomas, the Supreme Court justice's wife, called Hill at her office at Brandeis University to ask for an apology.
"Good morning, Anita Hill. It's Ginni Thomas," the voicemail said. "I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband."
Thomas's call deeply angered supporters of Hill, who found it galling that decades later her story was attracting doubts.
2013: 'Anita' premieres at Sundance
A documentary about the hearings, "Anita," directed by Academy Award winner Freida Mock, got a high-profile premiere at Sundance.
2016: HBO releases 'Confirmation'
New generations continue to learn about the Thomas-Hill hearings, which are the subject of the HBO film "Confirmation," starring Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce. Greg Kinnear plays Biden.
Hill told Time in an interview about the movie that she had not spoken to Biden since the hearings and that she continued to believe the process was not fair.
2017: 'Me Too' movement brings new attention
The "Me Too" movement brought new attention to public treatment of sexual assault and harassment allegations.
"Let’s get something straight here. I believed Anita Hill. I voted against Clarence Thomas," Biden said in November, adding that he was "confident" that Thomas had sexually harassed Hill.
"He said, 'I am sorry if she felt she didn’t get a fair hearing.' That’s sort of an 'I’m sorry if you were offended,'" Hill told The Washington Post later that week.
Biden then spoke to Teen Vogue in December 2017 and reemphasized that he "believed" Hill and that he regretted not stopping "the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends."
"And I insisted the next election — I campaigned for two women senators on the condition that if they won they would come on the Judiciary Committee, so there would never be again all men making a judgment on this," Biden said.
Biden also released his second book, "Promise Me, Dad" in November, which did not mention Hill or Thomas’s confirmation.
2018: Kavanaugh hearings echo Hill-Thomas
In the fall of 2018, President Trump Donald TrumpAOC said she doubts Biden's win would have been certified if GOP controlled the House Trump aides drafted order to invoke Insurrection Act during Floyd protests: report Overnight Defense: Intel releases highly anticipated UFO report | Biden meets with Afghan president | Conservatives lash out at Milley MORE ’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh Brett Michael KavanaughJustice Alito bristles at conservative Supreme Court's incremental course Protect our courts: Investigate Jan. 6 Supreme Court strikes down FHFA director's firing protection MORE was accused by several women, including Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, of sexual misconduct.
Kavanaugh, who denied all the allegations, was eventually confirmed by a razor-thin margin after Ford testified in front of the Senate in testimony that has been compared to that of Hill.
In September 2018, Hill wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging senators to handle the allegations better this time around.
She told Elle in an interview that "there are more important things to me now than hearing an apology from Joe Biden."
The former vice president, who by this time was already being floated as a 2020 favorite, told NBC’s "Today" show that Ford "should not have to go through what Anita Hill went through" if she chose to testify.
"My biggest regret was I didn't know how I could shut you off if you were a senator and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character," he continued. "Under the Senate rules. I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question, although I tried."
Early 2019: Biden calls Hill
In the run-up to Biden’s official campaign launch, the former vice president called Hill directly to express regret for how she was treated during the hearing.
Hill said she wouldn't describe his comments as an apology.
"I cannot be satisfied by simply saying 'I’m sorry for what happened to you,'" Hill said to The New York Times. "I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose."
April 2019: Biden sorry for how Hill was treated
Biden told ABC's "The View" that he didn't think he treated Hill "badly."
"I’m sorry for the way she got treated," Biden said. "Look at what I said and didn’t say I don’t think I treated her badly."
"I believed Dr. Hill. I believed what she was saying," he added. "There were a lot of mistakes made across the board, and for those I apologize. We could have conducted it better, but I believed Dr. Hill from the beginning, and I said it."
Biden again blamed Republicans on the committee for turning the hearing into a spectacle.
On "Good Morning America" the following week, Biden said he took "responsibility" for her mistreatment.
"I believed her from the very beginning, but I was chairman. She did not get a fair hearing. She did not get treated well. That's my responsibility,” Biden said.
"As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that," he added.
May 2019: Biden defended
One of the other women who accused Thomas of harassment in 1991 but was not called as a witness at the confirmation hearings wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post defending Biden's past role in light of his presidential bid.
She wrote that as chairman "Biden performed poorly" but added that she believes "we have more pressing issues than whether Biden has sufficiently apologized for what did or did not happen almost three decades ago."
How Has America Changed Since Anita Hill?
I remember 1991. Having graduated from college in 1989, and with a passion for politics, I, like many of my ilk, migrated to Capitol Hill to find work I deemed important. Luckily, in the 1990 election, I had worked for a congressional campaign that defied expectations and won in what was then rock-ribbed Republican New Hampshire. As a result, I had a leg up and landed a job as a legislative assistant.
I had visions of changing th e world in this position. I thought I had become a big deal. But the mundane nature of the work soon brought me to reality. Answering mail, taking notes at meetings, and taking phone calls the congressman didn’t have the time for became a daily grind. As my mother expressed when I described the work to her, I was a good secretary — and a low-paid one, at that.
Anita Hill’s poise and obvious honesty changed the way people viewed sexual harassment in particular and women in general.
What made up for these frustrations was my pride in walking the halls of Congress. I felt like I was witnessing history up close. My boss’s first big vote was on the resolution to authorize the Gulf War. Our office was flooded with mail we were ill-equipped to handle, as we hadn’t yet connected our phone system and computers. We stored bags of mail in the closet hoping to get to them later.
I remember standing in one of the halls of Congress with a few of my friends when security told us we couldn’t go any further because the president would be walking by. We hastily wrote a sign saying “no more vetoes” in protest of George H. W. Bush’s legislative strategy. It was thrilling.
In this way, I was there for the Anita Hill hearings. Granted, all the action was taking place on the Senate side of the Hill, but we reveled in the sense of being close to history.
And history it was. Anita Hill changed everything.
Remember, 1991 was a different era. Certainly, technology was different. Nobody had cell phones. Personal computers were rare. The internet was a secret government program. The fax machine was the height of connectivity. We printed our political fliers using a Gestetner machine.
Things were even more different in society. Two years before, in college, I was deemed a radical due to the fact that I had friends who were gay. The idea of gay marriage was absurd, and it was still socially acceptable to make fun of people for their sexual orientation. Freddie Mercury died of AIDS that year. I remember telling someone I worked with that I was a Queen fan, and he replied that he didn’t like Queen because he didn’t like “fags.”
Apartheid was still law in South Africa. The film Pretty Woman — a film that celebrated prostitution — was a hit.
But there were signs of change. After the fall of communism, Eastern Europe was taking its first steps toward democracy. The U.S. and Canada signed a treaty to reduce acid rain. Former Senator John Tower was rejected in his bid to become Secretary of Defense after it was revealed that he would chase secretaries around his desk.
But Anita Hill was a landmark. Her testimony was one of those turning points in history — a moment when the right person was at the right place at the right time. Some may say she failed to prevent Clarence Thomas from ascending to the Supreme Court. But her poise and obvious honesty changed the way people viewed sexual harassment in particular and women in general.
Today, it’s shocking to look back on how Biden handled the hearings.
At the time, though Democrats controlled the Senate, there was only one Democratic female senator. Supposed feminist Joe Biden was Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Today, it’s shocking to look back on how Biden handled the hearings. He should have been supporting Anita Hill. Instead, he did everything to hamper her. He refused to call witnesses that supported her story. As Annys Shin and Libby Casey reported in The Lily News, he was actually part of the problem. He called it a “he said, she said” situation and allowed the Republican men on the committee to, essentially, put Anita Hill on trial.
Nobody stood up for Anita Hill. She sat there and testified with honor by herself.
It was perhaps one of the most impressive pieces of testimony I have ever seen. She was cool and collected. She never let the Senators get the better of her. She refused to become a caricature of women. She was a real person who real people could relate to.
In the wake of Professor Hill’s testimony, 1992 became the “year of the woman.” America elected six Democratic women to the U.S. Senate. After the events of last week, a similar reaction may be in the cards this year
The Senate treated Dr. Blasey Ford so much differently than they treated Anita Hill just 27 years ago. I remember the hostility they aimed at Professor Hill. I remember how well she handled it, steadfast in the truth of her testimony. It’s hard to imagine how Dr. Blasey Ford might have reacted had she faced the same pushback.
Professor Hill changed our entire national dialogue about gender and sexual harassment.
Dr. Blasey Ford didn’t have to face that kind of reaction because of Anita Hill. Professor Hill changed our entire national dialogue about gender and sexual harassment. Finally, we wondered if it was okay to verbally attack a rape victim or ask what she may have done to cause the assault. We must remember that Dr. Blasey Ford’s assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh occurred prior to Anita Hill. That may be part of why she was originally afraid to report the crime.
Certainly, as last week demonstrated, we have a long way to go. But last week also showed us how far we’ve come. We need only compare last week’s hearing to Anita Hill’s a generation before. Whatever changes we see — in senators’ treatment of the victim and the national reaction to her testimony — are the result of one person: a relatively young woman willing to stand up to the most powerful men in the country and the country as a whole.
In October 1991, Hill testified about sexual harassment she allegedly endured from Clarence Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then a Supreme Court nominee. Before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, she recounted the allegations, sparking a national conversation about sexual harassment: what it is, how it's defined and whom it affects.
Thomas was eventually confirmed to the Supreme Court. But after Hill stepped into the spotlight in 1991, her experience forever changed how we talk about sexual harassment in the workplace.
A few years before the Anita Hill hearings,18-year-old Jaclyn Friedman started a summer job at an auction company. She knew she had to avoid the boss, who was frequently trying to find excuses to get her alone.
When she discussed the situation with her mother, she remembers her mother encouraging her to "do her best" to weather the experience.
"There was never a conversation about filing charges or getting me out of there," Friedman says. "I think that she accepted that it was a thing that might happen, and that we were powerless to a certain extent."
Watching Anita Hill on television in 1991 was Friedman's transformative moment -- it showed her what she'd experienced was not normal workplace behavior.
"That's when I came to understand, 'Oh, what my boss had done to me was not OK, and it wasn't inevitable,'" Friedman says. "It really was not a thing that had occurred to me before then."
A decade later, when University of Maine psychology professor Amy Blackstone first began researching sexual harassment, she interviewed men and women about their workplace experiences. The Hill and the Thomas hearings kept coming up.
"I was surprised by the number, without any prompting from me, who noted the impact the Thomas hearing had on their awareness of harassment as an issue, and the impact it had in terms of their reflections on their own experiences," she says.
Sexual harassment is an age-old issue. But for many, there wasn't a lot of clarity as to what that behavior looked like or what laws or policies could protect women -- until Hill.
In 1975, a group of women at Cornell University created the term "sexual harassment" to define these same behaviors they saw in inappropriate work environments. But the term still wasn't widely used in everyday conversation.
For two more decades, civil rights lawyers pushed cases through the courts, but women were unable to sue for damages, crucial for many who were risking their jobs to come forward.
Just several months before Hill's testimony, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed dohiwn a decision in Ellison v. Brady, the first case to establish the "reasonable woman" or "reasonable worker" standard, which revolutionized sexual harassment law. The decision suggested that courts try these cases from the perspective of the accuser -- not the defendant, as had previously been the case. It also incentivized employers to provide sexual harassment training.
But people still struggled to understand how they could define the behavior -- and women continued to struggle daily as small comments, jokes and more went unchecked.
Then Hill shared her experiences with a rapt television audience. The media attention changed everything, according to Merrick Rossein, law professor at the CUNY School of Law.
"Her testimony and the attacks on her resulted in a profound national dialogue and inquiry into sexual harassment in the American workplace," Rossein says. "Most people had no idea. They didn't know what the term meant. They'd never heard of it. So after her testimony and the rise in the women's anger, there were surveys and studies throughout the American workplace."
And from this combined rise in awareness and anger, Rossein says, sexual harassment awareness progressed considerably. According to the EEOC, in the five years after Hill's testimony, sexual harassment complaints filed to the office more than doubled.
In a recent op-ed for The New York Daily News, Hill herself says she still hears from women suffering in silence. Harassment scandals continue to rock Silicon Valley CEOs and Hollywood heavyweights. And even as some women come forward, many stay silent for fear of retaliation.
"The most current surveys show that although we've made progress and that many corporations have developed pretty good policies and there's been more training -- the courageous women who complain remain the tip of the iceberg," Rossein says.
Correction: A previous version of the story identified Merrick Rossein as a legal history professor. He is a professor of law.
CNN will host a town hall on sexual harassment Thursday at 9pmET. What questions would you like us to address? Please contact us using #CNNTownHall or Text, iMessage or WhatsApp 347-322-0415
Kavanaugh's Defenders Show How Much Has Changed Since Anita Hill's Testimony
We have finally reached a mainstream realization that “personal” matters are inextricably connected to power, and that sexual behavior has social and political consequences.
Posted on September 20, 2018, at 3:57 p.m. ET
Law professor Anita Hill speaks at the commencement ceremony at Wesleyan University in May 2018.
Nearly 27 years ago, Anita Hill stood before the all white, all male Senate Judiciary Committee and revealed, in specific and humiliating detail, the behavior she endured at the hands of her former boss, Clarence Thomas. Hill, then a well-respected scholar and lawyer, gave testimony including details of sexual harassment involving pubic hairs on Coke cans and conversations about beastiality. She was not only disbelieved — she was dehumanized.
In 2012, as Thomas entered his third decade as the Supreme Court’s most rigidly conservative member, I edited a book of essays looking back on Anita Hill’s experience, by authors including Hill herself. And as the Senate Judiciary Committee yet again considers claims of sexual misconduct against a potential Supreme Court justice, I’m struck by what’s changed — and what’s stayed the same — since Hill first spoke out.
Back in 1991, plenty of people were undeniably angry at how condescendingly Hill was treated, but twice as many Americans at the time believed him over her. But within a year, Hill’s testimony had ushered in what was dubbed by the media as “The Year of the Woman,” with what was then a record number of women running for public office. The majority believed that Hill was telling the truth — a percentage that would continue to shift in Hill’s favor as the decades went on.
Though the majority of the American public would eventually stand on the right side of history, the conversation around Hill’s testimony revealed the many ways our culture still fell short when discussing allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful men. Primarily, there was a widespread assumption that what happened to Anita Hill was personal to her, rather than part of a pattern of misbehavior by a powerful man. This misunderstanding was helped along by the committee refusing to hear from at least four other women who were willing to testify with similar stories of harassment by Thomas.
This meant that the resounding question at the time was: Can this woman be believed? Men’s truths were treated as inevitable, but women’s had to be earned, and many simply believed that the best way to judge an allegation of sexual misconduct was to evaluate the accuser. Whether or not the accused could have a history of similar behavior was not a priority questions of why Hill had not spoken up earlier were.
“I know many people who have experienced these things and who have been quiet about it — women who have experienced these things as long as 20 years ago, but who are still emotional and angry if they talk about it, which they rarely do,” said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus at the time. (He was a lone voice on the committee urging his colleagues not to write off Hill’s testimony.) “This is not irrational behavior."
Much has changed since then, as evidenced by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. For starters, the current 21-member Senate Judiciary Committee has four women and three nonwhite members it’s still far from representative of the US population, but it’s something. But what has changed the most isn’t laws or representation, but us: We are willing to believe women, and we’re much less likely to write off one woman’s experience as just one woman’s experience.
Consider the lines coming from defenders of Kavanaugh as they consider the allegations from Christine Blasey Ford. While some — including Kavanaugh himself — are simply saying she is not telling the truth, many have chosen a different path, asking how seriously we should consider something that is claimed to have happened so long ago, in the throes of youth. That so much of the conversation today is about how severe the consequences should be for past sexual misconduct, rather than the credibility of an accuser, shows how deeply our approach to such allegations has changed.
Most important, it used to be that the court of law trumped the court of public opinion — and Anita Hill has consistently maintained that she was never pursuing a legal case against Thomas. But we have finally reached a mainstream realization that “personal” matters are inextricably connected to power, and that sexual behavior has social and political consequences. Far from being isolated incidents between two adults, some ostensibly sexual behavior isn’t sexual at all: Preying upon women can often be considered an attempt to reinforce hierarchies, squelching women's progress in public life.
There’s a role for the justice system in dealing with such predatory behavior, but today we understand that in a democracy the public must also cast its judgment on who is fit to occupy public positions of power.
“In 1991, Anita Hill made history by the simple yet terrifically courageous act of standing up to an arrogantly gender-biased political culture,” wrote Patricia Hill in The Nation on the 20th anniversary of the hearings. It wasn’t just a political culture that looked down on her testimony — so too did “the public [who] rejected the testimony of my life experience,” Hill later wrote. Almost three decades later, Ford isn’t just speaking up about her truths, but also speaking out against what continues to be a woman-hating culture.
Regardless of where this lands, Christine Blasey Ford is being deemed credible, with even her most strident partisan opponents debating the substance of her allegations, not the reliability of her character. In the he said–she said wars, women have consistently lost, but the past year has begun to shake that up. Whether or not the law is on her side, the public clearly is.
I Rewatched Anita Hill’s Testimony. So Much Has Changed. So Much Hasn’t.
Decades later—even after #MeToo—we are seeing again why it’s so hard for women to come forward.
Liza Mundy is a senior fellow at New America and author, most recently, of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.
Now, it might seem, is the golden age of female agency—a newly empowered era for women, or something approaching it, a time when cheeky porn stars taunt presidents on Twitter, fed-up movie actresses tell what producers did to them in hotel rooms and restaurant basements, and serial abusers suffer, at long last, some consequences for their acts. Somewhere, as I write this, a once-obscure psychologist named Christine Blasey Ford is asserting her right to tell her story in her own time in her own way—bartering with U.S. senators, staffers and lawyers about exactly how she will testify to her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party when she was 15 and he was 17, a charge Kavanaugh denies.
Amid the controversy over Ford’s much-anticipated public appearance tentatively set for this coming week, the precedent often invoked is the moment, almost exactly 27 years ago, when a little-known law professor named Anita Hill appeared before a Senate panel to testify to her own allegations that another conservative Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her, a charge that Thomas, too, denied. If you are looking for something to stream this weekend, you could do worse than to watch the full, riveting C-SPAN footage of the Hill-Thomas hearings, in which, for the first time in American history, the august walls of the Senate—and a watching nation—absorbed public talk of things like oral sex and pornography and male entitlement, so shocking then, so drearily familiar now.
In many ways, the climate for accusers is better in 2018 than it was in 1991. For one thing, there now exist four women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, compared with zero back when Hill appeared, a lone figure with a microphone and a glass of water, in the packed caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building. Thanks to the courage of victims and the work of reporters, the public attitude toward allegations of sexual assault and harassment has shifted from default skepticism toward cautious willingness to believe. There are more female lawyers, better and smarter preparation for women before they come forward. If nothing else, any victim preparing to talk about harassment or abuse knows, by now, to expect her credibility to be challenged and her morals impugned.
But much, alas, remains strikingly as it was. Some of the senators hearing Ford’s testimony, if she presents it, will be the same men who lined up across from Hill, and ended up confirming the man she said harassed her. Even now, any woman coming forward, particularly in an environment so charged and partisan, knows that the fury of an entire (and very furious) political movement will descend upon her. When it comes to a Supreme Court nomination, the stakes—the makeup of the highest court in the land, President Donald Trump’s ability to deliver the conservative court his base desires—are unimaginably high. Point being: Even now, even given the remarkable climate-change wrought by the #MeToo moment, we are seeing in real time how women can be intimidated by everything from the attacks they face to the constrictions placed on how they can tell their stories.
Any woman, like Ford, voicing allegations in such a pressure-cooker setting must know that her participation will be judged, that it will show up in her obituary someday, unbidden, as part of her life story—and part of the story of the nation. If you don’t believe that, ask Anita Hill, whose testimony altered her life’s course and exposed her in ways she couldn’t have imagined. Yet, that testimony has also stood the test of time. All those years ago, she foretold truths about human behavior that would not be fully acknowledged for a quarter-century.
To refresh the memory: In 1991, Judge Clarence Thomas was nominated to take the seat of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He underwent an unremarkable Senate confirmation process—until a report was leaked to the media showing that Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor, had told FBI investigators that Thomas had made uninvited sexual comments when she worked for him at two different government agencies. In the ensuing uproar, hearings were re-opened, and Hill, who said she never intended to go public, came forward to deliver sworn testimony. The upshot was one of the most gripping Senate hearings ever, as a 35-year-old African-American woman sat at a green-draped table before an all-white, all-male panel and calmly enumerated her charges. Watching the hearings today, you notice right away what hasn’t changed. Why, there is Democratic Senator Joe Biden, his hair not yet white, chairing the committee. There is a youthful Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the man who chairs it today. And there in a pinstriped shirt is Orrin Hatch, another Republican who dismissed the Hill charges as “scurrilous” and has now said, dismissively, of Ford that she must be “mistaken” about Kavanaugh.
After some oddly mesmerizing footage of the 14 senators whispering and shuffling papers as they await her arrival, Hill enters the hearing room wearing a double-breasted turquoise suit featuring the shoulder pads so many working women wore back in 1991—literal as well as metaphorical armor designed to mimic the silhouette of a man, at a time when we thought doing so might be helpful. Wearing a stoic demeanor and just the right hint of fuchsia lipstick, Hill swears to tell the truth, sits down, cranes toward the microphone and begins speaking, saying, “Mr. Chairman.” She is immediately interrupted, as Biden tells the officers of the Senate to make sure the doors remain closed while she delivers her statement. It is a small moment, but telling. These days, the experience of being interrupted is all too familiar to many women, who, if they have read Lean In or any of a zillion studies about women and work, well know that women are interrupted more than men.
Back in 1991 Hill, polite and unperturbed, merely started over. “My name is Anita F. Hill,” she says in the footage, in a voice rich with conviction but also with suppressed emotion. “My childhood was one of a lot of hard work and not much money,” she tells the committee, explaining that she was born on a farm in Oklahoma, the youngest in a family of 13 kids. She talks about her Baptist faith about going to Oklahoma State University and law school at Yale taking a job with a private firm in Washington, but wanting to do work that felt, to her, more fulfilling and socially useful. In 1981, a colleague introduced her to Clarence Thomas, who was soon appointed assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, and invited her to come along as his attorney adviser.
What she said next is (we know now) straight out of the Sexual Harassment 101 handbook. Hill assumed—as women do—that the job offer was based on merit. “I thought he respected my work and that he trusted my judgment,” she said in the hearing. Within three months, however, Thomas began to chip away at that happy notion, pressuring her to go out with him and drawing pushback from Hill, who thought it was inappropriate and told him so. Her boss, she alleged, continued to press her, and sought private opportunities to discuss his sexual prowess and his porn-watching habits, describing films involving group sex, rape and women having sex with animals. Hill, she says, was horrified. She told him the talk made her uncomfortable and would try to “change the subject,” a textbook response to such a skin-crawling situation. All this, Hill was forced to utter at a time when the American public was not yet inured to primetime talk of salacious sexual details, nor had any idea what it cost a woman to relive those moments of disgust and degradation. “It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and a number of sleepless nights that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends,” Hill said, continuing, “Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life, but it is very close to having to live through the experience that occasioned this meeting.”
In the years that followed, much was made of the fact that Hill was obliged to testify before a committee of only men, sitting there in their coats and ties—a “manel” before the phrase was coined. But it was more than just any manel. Flanking Biden on one side was Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, whose illustrious family—let’s be honest—includes men who have done as much damage to women as they have done good for the country, with offenses including serial infidelity, an affair with a babysitter and even deaths, including that of Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned when Kennedy drove a car off a bridge. Kennedy and his pal, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, were notorious for alcohol-infused misbehavior that, by one account, included a game of “waitress toss,” which is just what it sounds like.
On the other side of Biden sat Strom Thurmond, the bespectacled ranking minority member, stroking his pomaded hair and looking impassive as Hill talked about how humiliated she felt by Thomas’ alleged treatment. In addition to being a segregationist and racist, Thurmond was a known sexual harasser (“in the category of his own,” as NPR’s Cokie Roberts would later put it, describing the time he kissed her on the mouth at a political convention)—something everybody in the Senate accepted because, well, that was Strom, and he was awfully, you know, old. A few years after this hearing, one of the women elected in the wave of outrage that followed Thomas’ confirmation, Senator Patty Murray, would get in an elevator with Thurmond, who groped her breast—assuming, presumably, that she was just another intern or staffer and asserting what he considered his droit de seigneur. A newly arrived Republican Senator Susan Collins would take the stairs to avoid getting in the senators’ elevator with Thurmond, despite the fact that she was his peer and entitled to ride it. A colleague would notice—and laugh.
These, then, were the sages listening as Hill articulated the kind of agony and self-doubt felt by the many actresses, software engineers, producers and journalists whose collective experience would emerge during the cascade of #MeToo allegations: A powerful man will take your ambition, your hopes, your self-respect, your intelligence, your trust, and he will use them to his own purposes. “It was almost as though he wanted me at a disadvantage,” Hill reflected under questioning. She understood that it wasn’t sex he was after, necessarily, but the ability to make her vulnerable. At the time, few recognized that what Thomas allegedly did to Hill was classic predator-boss behavior. She described how she had tried to stand up for herself—apparently lacking confidence that she could approach, say, a human resources professional to handle things for her. In this, her behavior remains true of most employees: According to a 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even now, the least common response to harassment is to take action by reporting it or filing a complaint. The study notes that the most common responses are to avoid the harasser, downplay the gravity of what happened, or “attempt to ignore, forget or endure the behavior.” The reason? People who are harassed, the report says, fear disbelief, inaction, blame or retaliation. Exactly what Hill says she did and experienced.
For a time, Hill said, Thomas’ behavior abated. In 1982, when her boss took over as chair of none other than the EEOC, he invited her to follow him, and she did, something the committee would home in on as suspiciously career-minded—but which we also know, now, is common. “I needed the job,” Hill explained. There was no permanent slot for her at the Department of Education, which President Ronald Reagan wanted to abolish, and she wanted to continue working in civil rights. Not only did her boss allegedly resume his behavior, but it got weirder. He talked about his penis size, his penchant for oral sex. In one of the most startling allegations, Hill said that at one point Thomas got a can of Coke and asked who had put “pubic hair” on it. After this, pubic hair became a kind of national running joke, at a time when an ordinary American might have had a hard time believing a grown man, and an accomplished one, would fixate on such a strange and graphic detail. Now, it’s unsurprising to read allegations of men doing all kinds of strange and graphic things: masturbating into a potted plant, asking a victim to watch him take a shower, locking a woman in his office and raping her.
During her testimony, Hill talked about the toll this took. Thomas, she said, began to exhibit displeasure, and she worried she would lose her job. In February 1983, she said, she was hospitalized for stomach pain she attributed to stress. She began to look for a job and found a teaching position at Oral Roberts University. After that, when people would say admiring things about Thomas, she would murmur something agreeable but non-committal. The committee grilled her on this—how could she have agreed? How could she have had even infrequent contact with Thomas in later years, by, say, phoning to pass along messages from others? She explained that to tell the world about Thomas would gain her nothing and cost her much. “I could not afford to antagonize a person in such a high position,” she said, summarizing the predicament of so many working women. There was not yet an #IBelieveHer hashtag. There were not yet hashtags at all. She was in this largely alone. The ordeal would ruin her career in government—she was effectively run out of public service.
The committee did not, at the time, understand that these things are stock behavior. What it did do was ask her to repeat some of the most painful details. Biden wanted to hear the Coke-can-pubic-hair story again. He asked her which incident was the most embarrassing. When she said it was when Thomas talked about the pornography showing large-breasted women having sex with people and animals, Republican Senator Arlen Specter took this opportunity to tell Hill that “breasts” is an ordinary word. “This is not too bad,” he mansplained at a time when mansplaining was not yet a known concept. She stood up for herself: “It wasn’t just the breasts it was the continuation of his story about what happened in those films with the people with this characteristic, physical characteristic.”
Specter asked her why she had not given every last detail she was sharing in the hearing room—such as the Coke-can episode—to the FBI agents who had interviewed her before the hearing, and whose report, according to the White House, had exonerated Thomas. One agent was female, one was male. “I was very uncomfortable talking to the FBI agent about that,” Hill said. “I am very uncomfortable now.” Specter wanted to know why she had not asked the male agent to leave. He wanted to know why she hadn’t filed a complaint against her boss, Thomas—when Specter could equally well have asked why there wasn’t a better HR department at the EEOC, of all places, to make sure she felt supported. He wanted to know instead why she did not handle all of this by herself, ousting the head of the whole commission. In her response, Hill did what women often do—blamed herself. “I may have shirked a duty,” she said. “I am very sorry that I did not do something or say something.” At the time, there was not yet a vast body of social-science literature on women’s tendency to over-apologize.
Hill was pilloried for coming forward. Conservative (at the time) writer David Brock called her “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” (a jeer he would later recant). She was accused of having a “fantasy” about Thomas of being spurned by him of making it all up. There are still people who don’t believe her. I did then, and always have. There is a deeply moving moment after Hill delivers her opening statement, when the hearing doors are opened and her family enters the ornate caucus room. Biden wants them to be able to sit near her. She warns him, “It is a very large family, senator.” Chairs are procured, and her elderly mother and father come to sit near her, along with siblings, lining up, filing in, bending down, hugging her. She hugs them back, gracefully and gratefully. It is hard to imagine why a woman would endure what she did, if it were not true, and why her family would travel to show their support and love.
These days, Christine Blasey Ford’s experience feels slightly different from that of Anita Hill. Ideologues haven’t coined the same sexist epithets. As of this writing, the organized defense of Kavanaugh seemed to entail inviting people, including women, to testify to his character, rather than to impugn hers. Women often do feel more empowered: Stormy Daniels is lobbing her saucy tweets in the direction of the White House the women of Silicon Valley have formed advocacy groups to make the tech industry friendlier to them Hollywood actresses are launching defense funds for hotel workers and lower-income women. Everybody knows, now, that pornography is a major industry. Men have been suspended, fired, charged criminally, even convicted for harassment and assault in some cases, women have been promoted into their places.
Then again, the digital age brings new peril for victims coming forward. Ford has been the target of unfounded internet rumors—about her career, her family, her politics—and now, having received death threats, has had to vacate her house. President Trump, having managed to restrain himself for five days, sounded an awful lot like the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when he blew the why-didn’t-she-come-forward-sooner whistle on Twitter on Friday: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.” An aide for the now 84-year-old Orrin Hatch was among those hyping what turned out to be a conspiracy-laden Twitter thread insinuating that Ford had simply mixed up Kavanaugh for another classmate at that high school party. (“Zero chance,” Ford corrected the Hatch staffer took back his support for the author of the conspiracy theory.)