Anita Hill is owed an apology and the line forms to the Right
Certain images anchor our memories, and they are forever linked to the stories that become our history.
The enormous marble-walled Senate Caucus Room buzzed with activity amid the rush of a phalanx of Washington DC reporters and political journalists. Eager photographers jockeyed for space and positioned their cameras for the key shot of the witness at the green-clothed rectangular table. The entire room had been literally humming with anticipation until the chairman’s gavel sounded loudly and the witness rose from her seat to be sworn in. Beneath the glare of powerful klieg lights, and with the entire nation watching on television, a slender, attractive young African American woman faced the chairman and raised her right hand and swore to tell the truth. Impeccably coiffed and groomed and wearing a modest, crisp, teal-blue suit with parallel rows of golden buttons, she simultaneously and unwittingly took the oath — and her unique place in history.
Twenty-six years ago, at the time that the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy exploded in national headlines, I was a first-time grandmother experiencing the new joy and euphoria of hands-on grandparenthood. Savoring every moment of my adorable chubby-cheeked granddaughter’s presence and eagerly sharing and revealing to her the world she had been born into. Meanwhile, from elsewhere outside of my world in Washington DC, the broadcasts of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Confirmation Hearings for Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas was simultaneously seizing and diverting my attention. At first, the salacious rumors about “some drama of a sexual nature” were hinted at in print and radio media. But when the hearings became the lead story on television network evening news broadcasts, the entire nation was held at rapt attention and poised for another Watergate-type scandal.
In those days, broadcasts of such hearings were normally tucked away in the crawl space of TV neverland on C-Span for Washington insiders and die-hard political junkies’ viewing; but the 1991 hearings took a sudden and dramatic turn when a young African American University of Oklahoma law professor named Anita Hill came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) had repeatedly sexually harassed her during the early 1980s.
The hearings gripped the nation with front-page newspaper headlines and preempted every bit of regular programming on network television. It was must-see TV, which in those days, for nine-to-five working folks meant setting the VCR for viewing later in the evenings. Like millions of other people across the country, I was transfixed by the images and testimonies being broadcast from that enormous and iconic marble-walled Senate Caucus Room. The very same room where the Army-McCarthy Hearings were held in 1954. The Watergate Hearings in 1973 and the Iran-Contra Hearings in 1987. When Anita Hill stood to face the committee, holding her head and her right-hand high as she was sworn in, she was self-assured, poised and secure in the truth she was about to reveal. Her opening statement, which she read with composure and dignity, was followed by powerful testimony that sent shock-waves through the room and nearly derailed the Thomas nomination. As one of millions of women viewers telepathically transmitting support through television screens to her across the country, I proudly cheered her on. I felt tremendous empathy for her and was so moved that I held my infant granddaughter up to the TV screen, memorializing the moment and whispered to her: ‘Remember this day, Sweetie. This is a proud day for women everywhere!’
To the contrary, as a black woman I found the carefully orchestrated spectacle of Clarence Thomas, desperately and shrewdly manipulating the all-white all-male panel of 14 Senators to his advantage with the race card utterly insulting. Especially in light of his well-known history of being vehemently opposed to Affirmative Action, even though he was clearly a beneficiary, as well as his positive stance on “bootstrap conservatism”. He had deservedly earned the phrase so often applied to him in the African American community: “He climbed the ladder and then put it away.”
Race and gender and politics intersect.
When Thomas’ words: “This is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks…” echoed piercingly through the enormous, cavernous room, he was deftly highlighting the racial overtones of the all-white tribunal accusing a black man of certain lurid sexual behaviors and using the lynching metaphor to his advantage. In doing so, he was including his accuser, a black woman, in his slavery metaphor diatribe which was even more offensive. And by strategically changing the focus of the hearing from sexual harassment allegations against him to racist politicking, Thomas changed the narrative and had the feckless Senators on his side from the word “lynching”. And the uncomfortable and crest-fallen expression on the face of nearly every one of them spoke volumes. How could they believe this woman and rule against this good black man who grew up in abject poverty and rose above his squalid station in life to have a successful law career and embrace the conservative principles they hold dear? This could not be. For the most part, these men chose to question the accuser’s motivation. Choosing instead to embrace the notion that she was part of a carefully-orchestrated conspiracy to destroy Thomas’ reputation.
As every woman of a certain age will recall, the mistreatment of Hill by the committee was shocking. During the openly hostile questioning, I became viscerally incensed observing how almost the entire row of Senators refused to make eye-contact with her during the questioning. But she looked them directly in their diverting eyes and spoke her truth in a cool, calm and unflappable manner. They grilled her for hours on the lurid details of her accusations against Thomas. Forcing her to repeat and quote the exact language that Thomas used in his inappropriate comments to her. With pointed references to comments about penis dimensions, /aka “Long Dong Silver”, and breasts sizes, and “pubic hair on the Coke can”. Most of the Republican Senators intentionally humiliated her while seeking their Perry Mason moment from somewhere within the salaciousness of her accusations. Forcing her to tolerate their demeaning, sexist, blame-the-victim questioning. They were clearly determined to discredit Hill and confirm Thomas no matter what. The extreme Right had openly embraced him and given them their marching orders, so he quickly became “our guy”.
Among the most hostile interrogators and sexual harassment deniers were Republican Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA), Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Others either chose to waste time pontificating or exhibiting complete indifference. A number of the Senators couldn’t even pronounce the word “harassment” or even bother to try, but true to his nature, Senator Simpson had his own way of expressing his disdain, referring to it as “this sexual harassment crap!” As for the Democrats, Senator Joe Biden, as chairman of the Committee, did very little to stop the barrage of attacks on Hill. Moreover, questions regarding his decision not to call three other witnesses who were standing by to corroborate Hill’s charges hovered over the hearings. Senator Ted Kennedy’s jaw may just as well have been wired shut, for all intents and purposes, as he appeared to be stunned into abject silence. Visually scanning the row of Senators, many appeared to be in a dazed state of catatonia, staring blankly, seemingly having been rendered mute as well.
The Biblical passage “…let he amongst you who is without sin cast the first stone.” hung in suspension over the room like an ominous cloud.
Our World Then
At the end of the Supreme Court’s 1990–91 session, in a surprise announcement, Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court, announced his retirement after 24 years on the bench. Republican President George H.W. Bush saw Justice Marshall’s retirement as an opportunity to appoint another conservative to the Supreme Court. He then quickly chose Clarence Thomas, a 43-year-old conservative Republican United States appeals court judge for the District of Columbia Circuit with less than two years on the bench as well as never having previously argued before the Court. If confirmed, Thomas would follow Justice Marshall, one of the last liberal voices on the high Court, and a well-known pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Brown v. Board of Education) as only the second black judge to ascend to the Supreme Court. Believing that Thomas would fill the racial void of the Court as well as add another conservative voice on decisions involving Affirmative Action and Abortion, Bush was willing to overlook his lack of experience.
“He climbed the ladder and then put it away.”
Thomas’ nomination was instantly controversial and caused an uproar within Civil Rights organizations and the African American community at large. The NAACP, the Urban League, the National Bar Association, all vehemently opposed his nomination, and his strictly conservative stance on Affirmative Action was a major concern. In addition, women’s groups that included the National Organization for Women expressed deep concerns that Thomas would be certain to rule against legal abortion and jeopardize Roe v. Wade. In spite of all the uproar, when the hearings finally began, they started out as routine, but as the proceedings approached a final vote, they took an unexpected and dramatic turn. Reportedly, word about the secret affidavit that Anita Hill had written and submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee was leaked to Nina Totenberg of NPR (National Public Radio). The committee was reportedly “aware of some nefarious charges” against Thomas, but they were not interested in addressing them. Totenberg reached out to Senator Joe Biden, the committee chairman, for comment for several days, but never heard back from him. Finally, after waiting she decided to go public with the story.
Women of America were outraged, and meanwhile, as the rumors began to spread, a group of women law professors rushed to organize legal support for Hill. Among them, Judith Resnik, of University of Southern California, Emma Coleman Jordan, of Georgetown University, and Susan Deller Ross of Georgetown University. Soon after, Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School became the principal adviser. Subsequently, a short while later, when gossip around Washington reached the women in the House of Representatives, they stormed over to the Senate office building and demanded that Anita Hill be heard.
The Women of the House Storm the Senate’s Old Boys Club
During that time there were only two female members of the United States Senate. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), and neither one was on the Committee. Several weeks before, word had leaked out that their male colleagues in the Senate would refuse to allow Anita Hill to testify in the confirmation hearings. So the women of the House of Representatives (Barbara Boxer, Nita Lowey, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Pat Schroeder, Jolene Unsoeld, Louise Slaughter, and the late Patsy Mink) huddled together and mobilized into a fierce and united front and took off running, on-foot, many in high heel shoes, from the floor of the House of Representatives over to the U.S. Senate to protest the unfair treatment of Hill. While all of this was going on, press photographers were gathering nearby and the congressional switchboards were overwhelmed with phone calls from outraged women constituents from all over the country. Once inside the building, the women were not exactly welcomed with open arms. As Pat Schroeder recalled: “One of the old bulls in the Senate said to me: ‘I really hope you’re happy. This place is beginning to look like a shopping mall!’”
Fortunately, the women persisted in shaking things up in the old boys club and because of their demands, Hill was called to appear before the committee and testify.
And what a visual it was.
One lone and courageous young woman facing those 14 all-white all-male openly hostile members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who were determined not to believe her. To prove her a liar, and destroy her character on national television. This was a virtual verbal firing squad questioning Professor Hill and probing for embarrassing details about the sexual harassment she had endured from Thomas. Facing the barrage of interrogators, she was calm and composed and she told the truth. Her testimony included charges that after she declined his invitations to go out with him, Thomas harassed her repeatedly with inappropriate descriptions of sexual acts, beastiality, and pornographic films he had seen. The Senators grilled her, impugned her honesty and forced her to repeat details of the most graphic verbal sexual insults she had endured from Thomas. But she spoke strongly and believably, from personal experience, to the character and fitness of Clarence Thomas to serve on the high court. His denials were instantaneous, disingenuous and unconvincing.Nevertheless, on October 15, 1991, in a 52 to 48 vote, their guy, Clarence Thomas, was confirmed by the Senate. The fact that his confirmation was the narrowest margin for approval in more than a century was of little comfort.
After watching the vote count and the announcement of the confirmation, I turned the television off and again held my granddaughter in my arms in female solidarity at this sad moment in our history that did not bode well for her generation. Pacing the room in mournful melancholy, I expressed my visceral disappointment to this five-month-old baby girl, not for her to comprehend at that age but to memorialize the moment for her and for my next three granddaughters who would be born in the coming years, and for all the girls of their generation.
‘This is a sad day for women, Sweetie… Look at those guys…I’m so sorry that you’ve been born into this male-dominated, patriarchal society…We have to change this. We have to change it for you and your generation.’
Needless to say, I believed and still believe Anita Hill. She did not ask to be drawn into the public spotlight or the media circus that surrounded her. After deep contemplation and consideration, she followed her conscience and spoke out, as she should have, about the character and fitness, or lack thereof, of Clarence Thomas to serve on the United States Supreme Court. So the news of the confirmation was devastating to me on many levels, also as a woman, a mother and a grandmother. In addition to my then-infant granddaughter who is now 26 years-old, my grandmother joy was enhanced over the years by the addition to my family of three more beautiful, brilliant and free-spirited, feminist-leaning granddaughters. In a recent conversation with them about sexual harassment, my 11 year-old granddaughter posed this interesting question to me:
“Grandma, did any of those Senators ever apologize to Anita Hill for the way they treated her?”
I thought it highly unlikely, but to be fair and accurate, I scanned the Internet and have been unable to find any evidence of any type of apology ever being offered. The fact that in all these 26 years, not one of the members of the committee has seen fit to reach out to her is unconscionable. Over the years, several of them have made half-hearted comments holding fast to their “he-said-she-said” “just bedroom politics” dilemma. Then-chairman, former Vice President Joe Biden’s support of women’s issues notwithstanding, and admittedly he has been an outspoken advocate for women’s issues in the interim years. But his decision not to admit the testimony of several corroborating witnesses who could verify Anita Hill’s testimony is a perpetual stain on his reputation.
Do you believe us now?
I often tell my granddaughters that the women of my generation have long memories and that “old sins cast very long shadows”, while also pointing out to them that the current explosion of sexual harassment allegations has reintroduced the conversation that was started by Anita Hill 26 years-ago. As a result of the revolution that began with her testimony, women are now coming forward in record numbers to expose their harassers and assaulters. Across multiple industries, from break rooms in fast food restaurants and service-based industries, to boardrooms in fortune 500 companies, to Hollywood studios, to the military, women are stepping forward to expose and call by name a powerful man as a sexual predator. In past years, victims were dismissed, humiliated and denigrated while their perpetrators were excused and free to continue preying upon other women. Without ever being held accountable and continuing their lives and misogynistic patterns while simultaneously being financially rewarded, e.g., Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, or achieving enormous success and respectability. From lifetime tenure on the United States Supreme Court (which seemingly gave license to Clarence Thomas’s wife to drunk-call his accuser and leave a rambling voicemail message demanding an apology) and more recently to a controversial and questionable ascendency to the Presidency of the United States.
The intersectionality of race: Reporting police brutality and sexual harassment
For generations, long before “Black lives matter!” “Stop killing us!” mantras appeared on the national scene; black people have been reporting police brutality, taking to the streets and screaming about it in stentorian tones. But these expressions of our grief and outrage went ignored and police officers kept committing these atrocities. Refusing to recognize our humanity. But finally, in a toxic American landscape littered with the lifeless human remains of unarmed black victims of police shootings, there appeared an onslaught of bystander cell phone videos, winding up on Facebook and YouTube and calling media attention to the problem. Suddenly there, for all the world to see, numerous incidents of police brutality, infliction of excessive force, and abuse of authority and flat-out executions. Bringing national attention to the indisputable fact that black people are disproportionately vulnerable to police brutality. And if not for cell phone videos, few people would have learned the truth about the egregious acts of violence at the hands of police officers that the black community has been reporting and not being believed by whites. In today’s environment of sexual harassment revelations, the similarities in the reporting these crimes is striking. The blue line of police solidarity is rarely challenged in reporting cases of police brutality, and women attempting to report sexual assault often find themselves in a “shame her” “blame her” situation. However, more women are finding strength in their safety in numbers and coming forward at a record pace.
Today, these horrendous crimes are being dragged out of the shadows, and the perpetrators are finally being held accountable. Twenty-six years after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy focused a glaring light on issues of sexual harassment in the workplace; the recent Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal fractured our social consciousness with cataclysmic force. Years of whispered, behind-the-scenes Hollywood gossip erupted in a tidal wave of accusations and became headline news, forcing the entertainment community to turn an intense spotlight on one of its own.
Almost immediately, a tremendous succession of well-known Hollywood actresses came forward with accusations and descriptions of the sexual harassment and grotesque sexual acts that were forced upon them by the powerful and sexually deviant movie mogul. As the number of accusers climbed, scores of women, finding strength in their growing numbers, summoned the courage to finally speak out with their own disturbing accounts of what they had endured from Weinstein and kept silent about. Within days, Weinstein was quickly declared persona non grata in the entertainment industry and rendered a pariah. In the immediate wake of the scandal, emerging across multiple industries, main stream and social media erupted in a frenzy of follow-up stories, utilizing the “me too” hashtag to expose and denounce their attackers.
Victims are no longer willing to suffer in silence. They are emboldened and empowered by the strength of their growing numbers, as had recently been the case when Bill Cosby’s more than 50 accusers came forward, a virtual army of sexual assault victims have been galvanized into a fierce army of determined women, with new attitudes of “We’re not going to take this anymore!” Confronting and taking down lecherous deviants like Weinstein, Cosby, and Roger Ailes’ and his sexual predator breeding ground at Fox News, including Bill O’Reilly, and Eric Bolling et.al. and most recently MSNBC’s Mark Halperin, and Kevin Spacey, and Judge Roy Moore and Louis CK .
The Penis-Owner’s Mantra: When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail
As so often reported in cringe-inducing detail, the typical sexual predator’s M.O. seems to involve priapism run amok and male dominance by masturbation. As described in numerous cases, these guys typically and automatically objectify women on sight and see them only as tools for their own sexual gratification. Whether this is a neurosis or psychosis, I am not qualified to say, but I have lived long enough and read enough and have enough life experience to recognize profoundly repulsive and abhorrent behavior when I see it . What is it about the penis-owner that causes him to want to point it at, show it off to, or even rub it full-throttle against any female within arm’s reach? The brilliant comedian Samantha Bee and her writers addressed this penile obsession on a recent episode of her late night news satire show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and they are magnificently on-point.
Still hovering in the Zeitgeist of course, is the question: “What about Trump?” The predator-in-chief currently hanging out in the Oval Office who, despite over a dozen women’s claims of sexual misconduct, remains at large and continues his habit of disrespecting women. Old habits die hard, as he clearly demonstrated in the infamous Access Hollywood tape during which he inserted sexism and misogyny into the 2016 presidential campaign by bragging about his own habitual sexual assault moves.
It’s been said that the gods of Karma are not subtle. One could also add, ‘but they damned sure are slow’, because Donald Trump managed to con his way into the White House unscathed, and without being held accountable for a single one of the sexual assaults he boasts about.
The sexual predator in the White House
To be clear, sexual assault is about power and control and male dominance; and as more and more women realize this and refuse to be blamed or shamed into silence, they will continue to be emboldened and galvanized into a powerful stampede of women with a new clarion call targeting these predators: “We’re coming for you!”
Should we begin preparing for a victory lap over the long overdue defeat of sexual predation? It’s certainly too early to predict, but this so-called watershed moment in time is demonstrating very clearly that victims are talking now, and even the most high-profile and powerful of men risk being taken down and held accountable if they don’t change their abhorrent behavior.
For any sexual harassment deniers with lingering doubts, only one question remains: What personal benefit can any woman gain by re-traumatizing herself and exposing the living wound she’s been carrying around? Not to mention the public scrutiny and vilification she is likely to endure. These victims must be believed and supported when they summon the courage to come forward.
To put this all into proper context, last year after Gretchen Carlson’s personal lawsuit against Roger Ailes, for which she has been widely and deservedly praised and commended, led to the exposure of the sexual harassment epidemic at Fox News and resulted in the ousters of Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and others. Soon after, it was announced that Carlson was awarded a $20 Million Dollar settlement. But Carlson was not the first woman to call out and accuse a powerful man. Although her revelations triggered a massive number of reports of harassment, leading to the current situation where there is now strength in numbers; such was not the case for Anita Hill in 1991. The woman who actually paved the way.
Remembering the elegant, soft-spoken young college professor seated alone at the witness table, evokes and anchors a disturbing yet shining image in our national memory. With her supportive family and legal team behind her, enduring hours of grueling, demeaning, sexist, blame-the-victim questioning from numerous sexual harassment deniers who callously switched the narrative of the Senate Judiciary Hearings and put her on trial. But she carefully navigated the landmines of gender and race and told the truth to these men who were determined not to believe her and to prove her a liar. She spoke strongly and believably from personal experience to the character and fitness of Clarence Thomas to serve on the high court.
Today, amid the current and daily deluge of more shocking revelations on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace, Anita Hill is “trending” on social media, so I hope that this generation of young people will watch closely and read enough about her, and from her, to appreciate how much they are indebted to her for the historical impact of her brave confrontation with her harasser, Clarence Thomas, and his brethren.
The memory of her inner strength and bravery as well as the disappointment of the confirmation are still vivid for the people of America. And although the subject of sexual harassment was not a recognized concept at the time, it was brought to the forefront of public debate and sparked a national dialog back in 1991. And we all have Anita Hill to thank for that.
After the hearings, claims of sexual harassment filed, ironically at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) more than doubled.
The following year, in 1992, The Year of the Woman, Patty Murray, Carol Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer were all elected to the United States Senate.
Clarence Thomas remains under lifetime tenure on the U S Supreme Court, even after there have been more recent allegations of him groping women.
“Alas, I have taken out my pink ‘I believe Anita Hill’ button and pinned it to my jacket yet again. In the wake of all of the Harvey Weinsteins, maybe we all should.” Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in the Obama administration.
“I would not be a United States Senator today if it weren’t for the courage of Anita Hill…Because we made that walk over to the Senate, there were hearings, and America saw the way Anita Hill was treated, saw that there wasn’t one woman on the committee, that only 2 percent of the members of the Senate were women. It set off a chain of events. Look at the Supreme Court, where there are now three women. Things have changed mightily.” Former Senator Barbara Boxer, (D-CA)Congresswoman in 1991, elected to the Senate in 1992
“I would not have nominated Clarence Thomas. I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation.” Then-Senator Barack Obama, former University of Chicago law professor — Saddleback Church Faith Forum, August 17, 2008
“If we women from the House had not walked over to the Senate to demand that the Senators — all men and all white — hear Anita’s story, a turning point in the history of sexual harassment would have been missed and we would have lost the “Year of the Woman,” a reaction to the treatment of Anita Hill that elected the first African American woman Senator and a record number of women to the House and Senate.” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)
“I still respect the bravery that Anita Hill showed. She is a brilliant woman. Heavens knows where she could have gone. And look where he is.” Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, (D-NY)