In 1991, as Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas neared his confirmation vote, accusations of sexual harrassment surfaced from Anita Hill, a law professor who had worked with Thomas some years ago. Hill's charges and Thomas' denials were were a made for TV event that split the country in a classic "he said she said" scenario. The debate still rages as Thomas sits on the high court for a lifetime appointment. Who do you believe?
The year was 1991. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall had announced his retirement, and President George H.W. Bush had announced his nominee would be 43 year old Clarence Thomas. Thomas' confirmation to the Supreme Court would maintain the racial makeup of the court, being that both he and Marshall were African American. However, Thomas would decidedly move the court to the right. Marshall led the legal fights for civil rights in the 50s and 60s and was a dependable liberal vote on the court since his appointment in 1967. Thomas clearly would vote with the conservatives on issues like affirmative action and abortion. This is how our system works. We had a Republican President who has the right to appoint whomever he likes, and it's the Senate's job to determine if the nominee is suitable to sit on the highest court in the land for a lifetime appointment.
Anita Hill had worked with Thomas 10 years prior to his nomination to the court. She was an aide to Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Opportunity Commission. Hill provided testimony behind closed doors to the Senate committee considering Thomas' nomination, and Hill's testimony included charges that Thomas had sexually harassed her. These charges were investigated by the FBI and apparently concluded that the charges were inconclusive. The public would never have known about the sexual harassment charges, and Thomas' appointment would have sailed through the Senate. Except that Hill's statement was leaked to reporters 2 days before the Senate was to vote on Thomas' confirmation.
At this point, everything went crazy. The news on every channel turned to Anita Hill's charges, and the Senate had no choice but to bring her to Washington for public hearings. The 3 days of hearings from Oct. 11-13 in 1991 were televised from start to finish and riveted the nation. This was the largest case of "he said she said" our country has ever known.
Hill testified calmly and articulately, detailing how Thomas had repeated asked her out on dates, and had spoken in detail about sexual matters and pornography.
I declined the invitation to go out socially with him and explained to him that I thought it would jeopardize what at the time I considered to be a very good working relationship. I had a normal social life with other men outside of the office. I believed then, as now, that having a social relationship with a person who was supervising my work would be ill-advised. I was very uncomfortable with the idea and told him so.
His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.
Thomas took the approach of deny, deny, and he accused the press, the Senate, and the public of going after him in an old fashioned lynching.
This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.
The Senate hearings were characterized by tough grilling of Anita Hill by partisan Republican Senators, particularly Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania. Spector repeatedly questioned Hill on why she didn't file charges and why she continued to have contact with Thomas years later. Thomas had a number of witnesses testify on his behalf that they saw no evidence of any improper behavior on Thomas' part. Curiously, another employee of Thomas' Angela Wright made statements to Senate staffers about being harassed in much the same way that Hill did, but she was not allowed to testify.
After the 3 crazy days of public hearings, the full Senate voted on Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, and it was the closest vote in history. 52 Senators believed Thomas and voted yes, while 48 Senators believed Hill and voted no. Thomas, despite who you believed, now held one of the 9 seats on the Supreme Court for life.
The story of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill through the lens of the moral compass is not clear. It totally depends on who you believe. The moral outrage of one of these individuals lying to America while millions looked on is clear. Who was the truth-teller, sticking their neck out in front of the TV lights? Who was the liar? Clearly the 100 Senators chose who to believe as they cast their votes for Thomas' confirmation. The millions of people watching no doubt chose who they believed. Isn't it interesting that the Senators voted almost completely on party lines. 41 of 43 Republicans voted for Thomas, essentially saying they believed Hill to be the liar. 46 of 57 Democrats voted against Thomas, essentially saying they believed Thomas to be the liar. In fact, the nearly party line vote isn't surprising at all. In today's even more politically charged environment, a person looking back at this vote would be struck not by party line vote but by the fact that 11 Democrats voted for Thomas! What were they thinking? In a case of he said she said like Thomas-Hill, the 100 Senators and most of the rest of us believe who we want to believe.
I've thought long and hard about the Thomas Hill hearings when it happened and in the years since. I've always come down on the side of Anita Hill telling the truth, not only because I'm a liberal and didn't want to see arch-Conservative Thomas on the Supreme Court for life. Why would Anita Hill bring these charges if they weren't true? Was it a racist thing as Thomas charged? Anita Hill is African American just like Thomas. Anita Hill was a conservative Republican so from her point of view there was no political vendetta. She didn't choose to make the charges public. If her private testimony wasn't leaked to the press, Hill wouldn't have been asked to publically testify and the story would never have been public. What did Hill have to gain by telling lies about Thomas' sexual harassment in secret, then telling the same story in public after being required to come to Washington when the story became public? Many of the Republican Senators tried to link up a conspiracy theory of liberals using Hill and her story to bring down Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee they didn't like. Where's the evidence of that?
Thomas on the other hand had every reason to deny and lie. He was a nominee for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. If he could deny and lie through the hearings and get enough Senators to believe him, he'd be on the Supreme Court for life. Talk about motivation to lie! Thomas for his part evoked the dark days of the lynch mobs to equate what was done to him. If you believe Hill was sexually harassed, Thomas' evoking of the lynch mobs is an insult to all the black people who suffered racial persecution.
The Senators on the judiciary committee behaved outrageously. All white men, they attempted to bury Hill's story and not make it public. Only when the story was leaked did they decide to invite Hill in for public hearings. Once the hearings started, the Republican Senators, especially Arlen Spector, treated Hill like a liar from the start. Why did she not file sexual harassment charges? Why did she continue to have contact with Thomas after they ceased working together? It was as if Spector knew exactly what it was like to be a woman in Hill's position. None of these white men could ever know how they'd react being in Hill's situation.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was brought to the forefront of the country's awareness by these hearings. Anita Hill became a role model for thousands of women who'd suffered similar harassment. It was now ok to speak up and not tolerate this type of outrageous behavior. Anita Hill faced up to her tormenter and to a tribunal of Senators, all men, who sought to discredit her. After the Anita Hill hearings, many more cases of sexual harassment were brought by women. Women's groups gained tremendous notoriety in their fight to make the workplace safe for women and to make the workplace an equal playing field for women. This is a good thing and we can thank Anita Hill for paving the way.
The last footnote of the Anita Hill Clarence Thomas story is the ridiculous phone call from Thomas' wife Ginni to Hill in 2010.
"Good morning Anita Hill, it's Ginni Thomas," it 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."
Ginni Thomas is a right-wing tea party activist whose views on woman's rights are likely more conservative than Atilla the Hun. Of course she believes her husband, but to expect Hill to apologize? That's chutzbah!