Can a new TV movie be instructive to the generations of working men and women about our still unresolved issues of who we choose to believe in situations where one party has more perceived power than another?
“A high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” That’s how then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas referred to the sessions with Anita Hill at his 1991 confirmation hearings.
With the release Confirmation, a new movie about the Thomas hearings, the water cooler talk begins again about Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas and whether the facts surrounding what some perceived at the time as a ‘he said, she said’ dispute will actually see more light as the federal government’s dismissal of women’s sexual harassment experiences in the workplace.
Given it’s been 25 years since Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, surely some will ask, “Should anyone care today?” For me, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
A quarter of a century ago, I was 34. I had been in my work life for 11 years and was a middle manager in a small hospital. I was a wife and a new mother. Sexual harassment in the workplace was (and still is) as old as work itself, but we didn’t talk about it much. Organizations didn’t have anonymous hotlines, or webinars and workshops on what sexual harassment was. As a country club waitress in 1979, my co-workers and I felt the hot breath of our disgusting manager on our necks, often in the linen closet. I quit that job as did most of my co-workers. That was a college summer job for me, and the stakes weren’t that high. At least not at that point in my work life.
But for Anita Hill in 1991, she put everything on the line.
Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, got her Warholian “15 minutes of fame” at the Thomas hearings when called to testify that he had been sexually harassed her at a former job when she worked for Thomas at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
We all know the ending. Thomas was confirmed and has been a sitting, albeit mostly quiet, Justice for a quarter of a century. Though virtually silent at all oral arguments since his confirmation, his vote on many issues including cases like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, has been loud and clear.
Anita Hill went back to the University of Oklahoma to teach law, eventually becoming a professor at Brandeis University.
Here’s the back story: In 1991, Justice Thurgood Marshall stepped down from the court. Marshall was the first African-American jurist appointed to the court and was a leading civil rights voice for nearly a quarter of a century. President George H.W. Bush, wanting to appoint a replacement who was more conservative than Marshall, chose federal judge Clarence Thomas, a 43-year-old African-American from Georgia.
According to a white paper from George Mason University:
President Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas was instantly controversial. Many African-American and Civil Rights organizations including: the NAACP, the National Bar Association, and the Urban League, opposed the Thomas nomination. These organizations feared that Thomas’s conservative stance on issues such as Affirmative Action would reverse the Civil Rights gains that Justice Marshall had fought so hard to achieve. Women’s groups including the National Organization for Women were equally concerned that Clarence Thomas, if appointed to the high court, would rule against legal abortion. The legal community also voiced apprehension about Thomas’s clear lack of experience since he had only served two years as a federal judge.
Despite the initial controversy, the Judiciary Committee hearings were uneventful. The Judiciary Committee vote was an even seven to seven, and the nomination passed on to the full Senate without a recommendation.
That’s when the real excitement started, in front of the larger Senate committee. Leading the hearings was then-Delaware Senator Joseph Biden (D). At the time, my husband, son, and I were driving cross country and listened to the hearings on NPR. There was no satellite radio in those days, just eight hours of driving and eight hours of testimony. Hill accused Thomas of harassing her at the EEOC “with inappropriate discussions of sexual acts and pornographic films after she rebuffed his invitations to date him.”
Hill’s testimony and the questioning were quite graphic. In the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Thomas as associate justice of the Supreme Court. Senator Biden had a role that seems unlikely today, but will haunt him forever. He disallowed other witnesses – witnesses who were women – who would have corroborated Hill’s testimony against Thomas.
Thomas won. Hill and millions of women across America lost. Changes did grow out of that time. There were no women on the Judiciary Committee at that point. Shortly after the Thomas hearings, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) was elected and today serves along with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota.) There are still no Republican women on the committee.
For me, those hearings and the outcome left questions that remain today:
– Why did Biden, the champion of the downtrodden, not allow further testimony that would have eliminated the “he said, she said” battle?
– If what Hill said wasn’t true, why did she put herself in the grilling, national spotlight and become an asterisk in history? ( I realize that she was called to testify, and I’m not suggesting she lied under oath, but it is baffling to me.)
– Why did people believe Thomas over Hill, considering the specific and graphic evidence she offered?
– Why are some of the same politicians who supported Thomas dissing the current nominee, Merrick Garland?
Hill has made peace with her role in history and recently talked with the Today Show about it. She said, “I think what we have to do … is to understand why my testimony and my experience — why that was so important to the integrity of the Court, and why it spoke directly to the character of the nominee at the time.”
And aside from the what that episode said about the Court and the character of a judicial nominee, what does this history say about how women were treated then – and now – when making allegations of sexual harassment against powerful men? And can a new TV movie be instructive to the generations of working men and women about our still unresolved issues of who we choose to believe in situations where one party has more perceived power than another? And will it shed new light on facts that should have been taken more seriously when Hill was trying to get the nation to see what really happened then to women in the workplace?
Amy Abbott is a syndicated columnist with Senior Wire News Service and occasionally contributes to The Broad Side.