Retropolis

Reliving Anita Hill’s testimony: How the optics shaped the historic hearing

Greg Gibson/AP

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C-SPAN; Greg Gibson/AP

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C-SPAN; Greg Gibson/AP

The crimson carpet. The Kelly green tablecloths. Her blue suit. Their faces, all male and all white, staring back at her.

That was the scene 27 years ago at the Senate Judiciary Committee, when law professor Anita Hill testified that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Similar hearings this week, in which psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford will testify that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, will reveal whether America has changed in the decades since.

That 1991 hearing lasted three days. This is how it unfolded, in photo and video.

Greg Gibson/ AP

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C-SPAN

Greg Gibson/AP

Hill’s sexual harassment allegations were not made public until after Thomas’s confirmation hearings concluded, but Democratic committee staffers knew before the hearings began. At first, Hill was hesitant to come forward. Eventually, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), then the committee chairman, asked the White House to authorize an FBI investigation.

Hill — a Yale Law graduate and University of Oklahoma professor — had worked with Thomas at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She sent an affidavit to the committee and agreed to testify on Oct. 11, 1991.

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C-SPAN

First, Thomas delivered his opening statement to the committee, a scheduling decision that became a procedural nightmare when the senators realized they couldn’t question the judge on Hill’s allegations — because Hill hadn’t formally made them yet.

There was chaos and exasperation, then a recess. Thomas left the hearing so Hill could testify.

In her opening statement, the professor talked of her rural, modest upbringing and Baptist faith. Then she described in detail her allegations.

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C-SPAN

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C-SPAN

AP

For hours, Hill testified before the committee, answering probing questions about the 10-year gap between the alleged private incidents and her public accusations. Her parents and large family sat behind Hill as she recounted Thomas’s alleged advances, talk of pornography and the name of one adult-film star he mentioned: “Long Dong Silver.”

Biden oversaw the proceedings as chairman of the committee and was criticized for allowing a panel of 14 white men to ask tone-deaf questions of Hill, a black woman and alleged victim of sexual harassment.

Greg Gibson/AP

Many years later, Biden addressed his handling of the hearings.

“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” he said in a Teen Vogue interview. “I owe her an apology.”

Greg Gibson/AP

Until the Hill accusations, Thomas’s confirmation hearings had focused mostly on his grasp of the law and the Constitution. Then FBI investigators showed up at his front door with questions about a woman he’d worked with decades before — and his path to the Supreme Court took a sharp detour.

During the harassment hearings, he delivered a forceful, fuming denial of Hill’s claims. Then came the most famous and most infamous line from his comments back then.

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C-SPAN

Greg Gibson/AP

In many ways, the optics of the day were crucial to the end result. It was unsettling for some to watch 14 white men question a black woman about sexual harassment. And it was equally unsettling for others, especially those who believed Thomas, to watch 14 white men question him, too.

Race was just as much a factor in the hearings as gender, and the senators on the committee were especially sensitive to the former. Three of them — Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) — remain on the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

John Duricka/AP

John Duricka/AP

Hatch accused Hill of inventing one memory involving Thomas, in which she alleged that he grabbed a Coke can in his office and asked who placed pubic hair on it. It was an idea drawn from the pages of “The Exorcist,” he claimed, and then read the book passage aloud.

Though several senators labeled her as grudge-holding and deranged, four friends and former colleagues testified in her favor. They vouched for her character and credibility.

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C-SPAN

John Duricka/AP

John Duricka/AP

One witness, Judge Susan Hoerchner, recalled a telephone conversation with Hill in which the professor said she was being sexually harassed by her boss, Thomas.

“It was clear . . . that something was badly wrong,” Hoerchner said. “. . . Anita’s use of the words ‘sexual harassment’ made an impression on me because it was the first time I had heard that term used by a friend in personal conversation.”

On the morning of Oct. 14, the same day the hearings ended, Hill took a polygraph test administered by FBI employee Paul Minor.

John Duricka/AP

John Duricka/AP

She passed. The Senate hearing room with the crimson carpet and the Kelly green tablecloths emptied. Hill and Thomas went home.

The next day, by a vote of 52 to 48 — the smallest margin in recent history — Thomas was confirmed as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

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C-SPAN; Ron Edmonds/AP; David Longstreath/AP

The Year of the Woman is what followed. Four new female senators were elected in the year after those historic hearings, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is now the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was Feinstein who alerted the committee of Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh.

Today, as the committee prepares to hear testimony once more from a female professor accusing a male Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment, the optics are once again important. Of the 10 democrats on the committee, this time four are women.

All the Republicans are still men.