Washington, DC – As the US Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to hear testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused current Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, of sexual assault, many can’t help but have flashbacks of a hearing that took place nearly 30 years ago.
The hearing was for 35-year-old Anita Hill who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual misconduct.
On October 11, 1991, Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, testified before the all-male committee, relaying how her “positive” work relationship with Thomas turned into a sexual harassment battle a decade earlier.
She described her childhood as one consisting of “hard work and not much money”. Despite this, she went on to complete her undergraduate studies at Oklahoma State University and later joined Yale Law School. By 1981 she was a practising lawyer in Washington, DC, at Wald, Harkrader & Ross, where a mutual friend introduced her to Thomas.
“Judge Thomas told me that he was anticipating a political appointment and asked if I would be interested in working with him,” she told the committee at the time. “He was, in fact, appointed as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights. After he had taken that post, he asked if I would become his assistant, and I accepted that position,” Hill said.
Three months into the job, Hill said Thomas began to pressure her to go out with him and spoke of sex at work.
“[H]e referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex,” Hill said in her opening statement. “At this point, late 1982, I began to feel severe stress on the job. I began to be concerned that Clarence Thomas might take out his anger with me by degrading me or not giving me important assignments. I also thought that he might find an excuse for dismissing me.”
After listening to her testimony, senators grilled Hill over specifics, questioning how after more than 100 days of public praise, Thomas was being faced with such accusations. As Hill sat calmly leaning towards a microphone, she answered questions, sometimes having to repeat her experience, and gave eyebrow-raising details that had senators twitching uncomfortably in their chairs.
Thomas denied the accusations, calling the hearing a “high-tech lynching” and a “national disgrace”.
“It is a message that, unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you,” he told the committee on the first day of the hearings. “You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”
Sam Fulwood III, a political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times at the time, attended the hearing 27 years ago. Fulwood’s interest in the case started when he was reporting from Kennebunkport, Maine when George HW Bush made the Supreme Court nomination during his vacation.
“Bush checked in advance and got tacit agreement [Thomas] was an acceptable choice, so the black civil rights community was going to be less energetic to oppose the nomination,” he told Al Jazeera.
“When that became very clear some women groups that were concerned about women’s rights and abortion, in particular, they sprung into action. They were the ones who identified Anita Hill as someone who could potentially threaten the nomination.”
Just as Thomas was days away from being sworn in, reporter Nina Totenberg broke the story of the sexual allegations leading to a rolling chain of events that seemed to momentarily halt Thomas’s nomination.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who sat on the committee in 1991, is expected to sit on this week’s hearing regarding the allegations against Kavanaugh. Unlike in 1991 when Hatch supported an FBI investigation before Hill’s testimony, he has dismissed calls for one by Ford.
“Now they are saying they don’t have time and they say the FBI doesn’t do investigations of this sort – when in fact they clearly did before,” Fulwood said.
Days after Hill’s testimony, the Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court with a narrow majority vote of 52-48. Approval ratings from the time conducted by Gallup reveal that Hill’s testimony had even tipped some undecided Americans to favour an already popular nominee. The day before Hill’s testimony, Thomas’s approval rating was at 53 percent. He gained five percent in the days following Hill’s testimony, with those undecided dropping from 17 percent to 12.
“At the time of his confirmation he was more popular – a majority of Americans supported his nomination,” Fulwood said. “It made it easier not to believe Anita’s claims. Anita Hill was a black woman in 1991. We did not have the ‘MeToo’ movement. In 1991 the perception of sexuality and particularly of a black woman’s sexuality is not what it is today. They were much more likely to think of a black woman to be loose back then. Given the popularity of Thomas, then [the senate] had a political cover.”
As sexual harassment stories were rare in the public sphere at the time, Hill’s testimony was seen as an embarrassment by some, particularly among African Americans.
After asking dozens of African-Americans of what they thought of “a black man and a black woman engaged in this discussion about sex, etc”, Fulwood said an overwhelming number of people wished it never happened.
Once the hearing was over, Hill’s story lived on and evolved into a woman’s movement across the US.
Thomas’s popularity quickly took a turn when his court decisions proved unpopular and unprogressive. At that point, people started wondering if Hill had a point. Women, who’d been angered over the absence of a woman on the judiciary committee, had started to run for office. Other women felt empowered to report sexual harassment cases, which saw a spike the following year, the “year of women”, as some called it.
Recently, Hill urged the judicial committee to learn from their 1991 mistakes in an op-ed penned for the New York Times.
“The public expects better from our government than we got in 1991, when our representatives performed in ways that gave employers permission to mishandle workplace harassment complaints throughout the following decades,” Hill wrote.