Washington – In a prologue to their 1994 book, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,” journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson wrote of how “unresolved the conflict” remained between Thomas, the conservative justice, and Anita Hill, the law professor who testified that he had sexually harassed her a decade earlier.
“Rather than dying down, their clash has become part of an active battlefront in America’s culture wars,” observed the journalists of the nomination battle, which elevated Thomas to the nation’s top court in 1991. “The fight has gone well beyond the individuals – who have been reduced to symbols and caricatures – to strike at the heart of American politics.”
Nearly three decades later, as the Senate prepares to vote on another Supreme Court nomination, a contest is taking shape with clear parallels to the controversy that pitted the word of Thomas against that of Hill. An allegation of sexual assault has surfaced against Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee put forward by President Donald Trump, who himself stands accused of sexual misconduct. All three Republicans – Thomas, Kavanaugh, Trump, who could not be more different in background and temperament – deny the accusations.
A year into the #MeToo movement – which has ended the impunity of certain men while leaving others untouched – the dispute over Kavanaugh’s nomination, depending on its intensity and duration, could test how the culture wars have evolved and what the country has learned since 1991, whose convulsive events helped give 1992 its label as the “Year of the Woman.” The designation captured the historic number of women who rose to public office that year, in a mass political mobilization finding echoes in 2018.
“I was motivated to run for the Senate after watching the truly awful way Anita Hill was treated by an all-male Judiciary Committee interrogating her about the sexual harassment she endured at the hands of now-Justice Clarence Thomas,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a member of Democratic leadership, said in a statement Sunday.
Murray asked her colleagues to “treat this survivor with empathy and humanity and make sure that the United States Senate in 2018 doesn’t send the signal it sent to millions of women in 1991 who were scared to speak up, afraid to share their stories, and watched on television as someone very much like them was attacked and maligned.”
Twenty-six years after law professor Anita Hill testified to Congress that she was sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, she joins The Washington Post’s Libby Casey to talk about the slow pace of change and today’s #MeToo movement. Video: The Washington Post
Kavanaugh’s nomination was already fraught. Democrats are still incensed by the refusal of Senate Republicans to consider Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in the spring of 2016. They’ve complained about the withholding of thousands of pages of documents covering Kavanaugh’s career, including his service in the White House during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The revelation over the weekend that Kavanaugh stands accused of sexual assault will widen the meaning of his nomination beyond the judiciary. It is now also a fight over the rules of the #MeToo movement, of adjudicating claims of misconduct and perhaps, too, the rules of what can be known about a person, in this case someone ascending to one of the most powerful and protected jobs in the world.
Among the difficult questions now facing the committee and the public is not just how to ascertain the truth of events alleged to have occurred 36 years ago, but also how a man in his 50s, or anyone, should be judged for something he may have done when he was 17.
Crucial factors link allegations against Kavanaugh and those levelled against Thomas on the eve of his appointment. Both women wanted to remain anonymous. Both episodes occurred in the early 1980s. But the two cases also diverge in important ways, among them the fact that only a decade had passed between Hill’s alleged sexual harassment by Thomas and his appointment to the court.
As the Post reported Sunday, a professor in California, Christine Blasey Ford, is alleging that Kavanaugh, a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and favourite of the conservative establishment, sexually assaulted her more than three decades ago, when he was in high school at the Georgetown Preparatory School in the Washington suburbs. One summer night in the early 1980s, she claims, Kavanaugh pinned her down and attempted to remove her clothes, placing his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.
“I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time,” Kavanaugh said in a statement issued by the White House last week, when aspects of Ford’s account came into public view.
Ford did not intend to go public, but when details emerged last week of a letter she had sent through her congresswoman’s office to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, she decided to come forward to The Washington Post.
“Now I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation,” she said. The alleged episode, though many years in the past, exacted a psychological toll on her, one that she first articulated during couples therapy in 2012, as the Post’s Emma Brown reported.
The Judiciary Committee had been expected to vote Thursday on Kavanaugh’s nomination, a timeline that may now be in doubt. Several GOP senators have joined Democrats in saying Ford should be heard before lawmakers weigh the appointment of her alleged assailant.
Hill was heard by the Judiciary Committee, but under circumstances that she claims were designed to discredit and shame her. At the time of her testimony, she was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
She had worked under Thomas first at the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1980s. During this time, she alleged, Thomas repeatedly asked her out, ignoring her refusals, and tried to initiate conversation with her about pornographic films and his own sexual prowess.
In an opening statement before the committee in October 1991, Hill recounted how she “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,” she said. “I also thought that he might find an excuse for dismissing me.”
An affidavit submitted to the Judiciary Committee the previous month summarized her concerns. The FBI investigated her charges and reported back to the committee toward the end of September, at which point lawmakers split 7-7 on the nomination, put forward by George H.W. Bush. Then Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the committee’s top Democrat, joined six Republicans in supporting Thomas. No mention of Hill’s charges was made at the public meeting.
With the panel’s work apparently finished, debate in the full chamber began early the following month. But on Oct. 6, 1991, NPR and Newsday broke news of Hill’s allegations.
“Here is a person who is in charge of protecting rights of women and other groups in the workplace, and he is using his position of power for personal gain, for one thing,” Hill told NPR’s Nina Totenberg. “And he did it in a very, just ugly and intimidating way. But he is also really, in spirit and I believe in action, too, violating the laws that he’s there to enforce.”
Thomas denied the allegations, and when the committee hearings reopened on Oct. 11, the D.C. circuit judge and Yale Law School graduate – a pedigree shared by Kavanaugh – called the proceedings “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.”
Hill, a Yale Law graduate raised on an Oklahoma farm, spoke second, explaining why she had continued to work under Thomas in spite of the alleged harassment. “As I said, I may have used poor judgment. Perhaps I should have taken angry or even militant steps, both when I was in the agency, or after I left it. But I must confess to the world that the course that I took seemed the better as well as the easier approach.”
She recounted how she had tried to maintain her privacy, reluctant to come forward when Senate staff approached her about Thomas’ nomination. Ultimately, however, she felt she had a “duty to report,” she said. “I have no personal vendetta against Clarence Thomas. I seek only to provide the committee with information which it may regard as relevant.”
The all-male, all-white members of the committee questioned her credibility and quibbled with her over the lurid details of her account. At one point, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced that the FBI report “contains no reference to any mention of Judge Thomas’ private parts or sexual prowess or size of his private parts.”
“With the traditions of the Senate and the committee, Biden thought he was going to conduct a hearing, but the Republicans knew – led by Arlen Specter – that they were going to conduct a trial,” said Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democratic Maryland congresswoman at the time, in an oral history conducted by the Post with the small group of Hill’s congressional advocates. “And Professor Hill would be the one on trial.”
Biden refused to permit public testimony from a number of witnesses who endorsed Hill’s version of events. The then-Delaware senator did “a disservice to me, a disservice more importantly, to the public,” Hill said in a 2014 interview with the Huffington Post. Calling additional witnesses, she said, might have “helped the public to understand sexual harassment. He failed to do that.”
“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” Biden told Teen Vogue last year. “I owe her an apology.” The former vice president and possible 2020 presidential contender ultimately voted against Thomas when the judge was confirmed 52-48 on Oct. 15, 1991.
Hill, who did not return an email late Sunday seeking comment, told Politico through a spokeswoman last week, as the allegation against Kavanaugh leaked into public view, that, “the government needs to find a fair and neutral way for complaints to be investigated.”
“I have seen firsthand what happens when such a process is weaponized against an accuser, and no one should have to endure that again,” added Hill, who is now a professor at Brandeis University.
The alleged wrongs are different. The ages of the nominees at the time of the alleged wrongdoing are different.
So, too, is the makeup of the Judiciary Committee different, though not markedly so. Of its 21 members, four are women – all Democrats. Among them is Sen. Kamala Harris of California, among the most pointed in her questioning of Kavanaugh earlier this month. On Sunday, she pinned a message to the top of her Twitter page calling for a “thorough investigation” before a vote on the nomination. But the Senate is controlled by Republicans, whereas Democrats held legislative power in 1991.
Kavanaugh has emphasized his support for young female lawyers, saying in his opening statement before the Judiciary Committee that he was “proud that a majority of my law clerks have been women.” Republicans have also trumpeted the judge’s backing among women. On Friday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, circulated a letter from 65 women who claim to have known the nominee in high school vouching for his character.
Last month, Lisa Blatt, a self-described “liberal feminist lawyer,” set out in Politico her case for Kavanaugh. “Kavanaugh is a Mentor to Women,” proclaimed Amy Chua of Yale Law School, writing in the Wall Street Journal that there was “no judge” she would “trust more” to guide her own daughter’s legal training. Neither woman returned an email seeking comment Sunday night.
In his 1994 account of the Thomas nomination, “Resurrection: The Confirmation of Clarence Thomas,” former senator John Danforth of Missouri, whom the judge credits for his legal career, quotes Thomas as saying that he “played by the rules” in his hearings.
“And playing by those rules, the country has never seen the real person,” Thomas said, according to Danforth. “There is an inherent dishonesty in the system.”