IT WAS THE fall of 1991 when the turning point occurred. Ann Telnaes was a Cal Arts-trained animator and designer who had worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, but as she watched professor Anita Hill accuse judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment on TV, her anger grew, fueled in part by her own workplace past.
“Because I’d gone through gender discrimination early in my animation career, I was outraged [as] senators both Democratic and Republican asked horrible questions,” said Telnaes, recounting her reaction by phone this weekend from the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention in Sacramento.
“As I watched, here was a situation where I had actual experience,” said Telnaes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and animator at The Washington Post. “I knew that it was real. To watch a bunch of senators say: ‘You couldn’t have possibly been successfully harassed because we passed laws’ — I knew perfectly well that wasn’t true.”
All those feelings have returned as Telnaes follows the Supreme Court confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault in the early 1980s by Christine Blasey Ford, when both were Maryland prep-school students. And as with 27 years ago, a judge nominated for the high court faces a professor’s memories of sexual misconduct as a Senate Judiciary Committee weighs the allegations. Telnaes is one of four veteran cartoonists with whom The Post talked for this article about creating cartoons in response to both the Thomas and Kavanaugh hearings.
“I’m very angry that this is happening again,” she said. “Women are mad, especially those who have been through this before.”
Before the Hill hearings, Telnaes planned to have a long career in animation far from politics. But the words from Hill, as well as the treatment of the professor, sparked a career catalyst. All of a sudden, she said, “I decided I was going to try this editorial cartooning profession.”
“I was furious, so I put together a promotional packet,” she said of her freelance launch. “I had all these sexual harassment cartoons: Women in the workplace. The good-old-boys’ network. A woman climbing the ladder [of success that] leads to a guy’s crotch.”
Today, the cartoons of Telnaes — the first woman to win both the Pulitzer and the NCS Reuben Award — are laced with a similar anger over familiar events. “What’s infuriating about now is that these senators are saying the exact same things they said then: ‘Oh, I believe him.’ And they just dismiss [Ford] as if she’s not as much of a human being as [Kavanaugh] is.”
As a visual commentator, Telnaes also believes such cases spotlight why her profession, like others, needs a broad tapestry of voices.
“Because I have a personal stake in [such cases] — when you’ve experienced it — it’s heartbreaking,” Telnaes said. “That’s also testimony to the fact why you need to have diversity in editorial cartooning. You can’t just have a bunch of white guys. You’ve got to have people — like women, like minorities — to tell [their] story to other people.”
SIGNE WILKINSON is the only woman besides Telnaes to have received the editorial cartooning Pulitzer — and central to her winning portfolio was her commentary on the Thomas confirmation.
“I followed the Hill/Thomas hearings as I would any big, unfolding news story — from my own personal, biased and absolutely correct point of view,” said Wilkinson, political cartoonist for Philly.com. “Anita Hill seemed to me to be telling the truth.”
When such cases arise, part of Wilkinson’s mind-set is that of a mother. “I have professional daughters of my own,” she said. “If they, or any woman, ran into any improper behavior by a male colleague or superior, I would want the world to hear them without prejudgment.”
In 1991, Wilkinson — drawing for the Philadelphia Daily News — had another aspect to consider.
“The added wrinkle for me was that one of the lead figures in the Senate interrogation was our local Pennsylvania senator, the late Arlen Specter,” Wilkinson said. “Interestingly, a local woman, Lynn Yeakel, was so outraged by the event that she challenged Specter in his 1992 reelection bid and nearly won.” (Wilkinson noted that she herself was also the target of Specter’s personal attacks over the years.)
Wilkinson sees distinct differences between the hearing circumstances of then and now. “I don’t think Dr. Ford would have been listened to without the #MeToo movement,” she said. “I doubt she would have been listened to in 1991. She may not even have come forward, given the burden of proof women had to scale at that time.”
Yet, she says, the underlying issue is the same: “whether a man’s sexual mistreatment of women ought to be used as a judgment on his character.”
“The only cartoon I’ve done on the incident was not about Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence — though readers thought I was accusing him of guilt — but as a reminder of why the issue is important,” Wilkinson noted. “He will be considering abortion cases. Women and underage girls get pregnant by politicians who are pro-life. Must those women carry to term a child they don’t want because the man who impregnated them helped outlaw abortion?”
Overall in this case, Wilkinson believes that both sides should be heard before judgment on Kavanaugh’s role is rendered: “I believe the woman must be heard; it sounds like that will happen — before the Senate votes in party lockstep to confirm him.”
KEVIN “KAL” KALLAUGHER, a veteran artist for Britain’s the Economist, was still settling in as the daily cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun when Thomas was nominated for the high court. Kal soon got a memorable lesson in Washington theatrics.
“The hearings were my first time witnessing congressional hearings as political theater,” Kal recounted. “It was both instructive and intriguing to watch the strutting and preening of the senators in front of the camera.
“As a commentator and satirist, you watched closely to see if this first-time reality-TV drama was going to end up as a tragedy or farce,” he continued. “It resulted in being both.”
Day by day, Kal was struck by the live televised proceedings as spectacle. “I could feel the enormous pressure on both Hill and Thomas under the withering lights and cameras,” he said. “Anita Hill, in particular, showed remarkable strength as she endured what seemed to me a relentless battering by Republican Sens. Arlen Specter, Alan Simpson and Orrin Hatch.”
Such scenes spurred Kal to try to dramatize the verbal pyrotechnics through visual metaphor. For a 1991 cartoon, he drew those three senators, all armed, standing over a beaten Hill. “In those days, reactions would be judged by the volume of letters and phone calls to the paper,” Kal said. “The [strong] response was almost entirely in support of the cartoon.”
Kal now views the Thomas confirmation as “perhaps the first salvo — the ‘Fort Sumter moment,’ if you like — of the current hyperpartisan culture wars between the parties.”
“It was also before the Internet became a major source of information,” the Herblock Prize-winning cartoonist noted, “so the whole nation was glued to their TV sets at the same time, watching the hearings like a Sunday football game.”
Despite the entrenched partisan tribalism of today, Kal said, he believes that society’s attitudes regarding race and gender have evolved for the better since then. “There is a long way to go, no doubt,” he said. “But I sense that if the Hill/Thomas event happened today, Anita Hill might get a better reception than she did in 1991.”
As for that 1991 cartoon, Kal said that it remains a favorite among the artworks of which he is most proud across a 40-year career.
MICHAEL RAMIREZ, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, recalls the Thomas confirmation process as a period of fresh depths for Democrats. “It opened a new era of how far astray Senate Democrats would go from their role to consent and advise, and how low they would go to stop a SCOTUS appointment,” Ramirez said. “I would cartoon to expose this.”
Unlike some of his artistic colleagues, Ramirez saw nothing that should derail Thomas’s appointment.
“For me, Anita Hill was not believable,” the cartoonist said. “There were no corroborating witnesses. Her long friendship with Clarence Thomas betrayed her misgivings. She [followed] him to the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] after her reported offense to his statements at the Department of Education, and continued their relationship, meeting and dining with him after she no longer worked for him.
“All of this pointed to this being political in nature rather than factual. In America, a man is innocent until proven guilty.”
Calling the justice’s confirmation hearings “an ambush,” Ramirez added: “I agreed with Clarence Thomas that it was a ‘lynching’ because he was a black conservative.”
To render judgment, one of Ramirez’s most striking cartoons in response tapped the iconic imagery of segregated drinking fountains. “In my cartoon,” the artist said, “the unrefrigerated fountain was for black conservatives.”
In Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Ramirez sees a similar ambush that he believes values politics over facts. “The uncorroborated charges against Judge Kavanaugh reveal much more about the senators aligned with [Ford],” he said, “than the judge.” And to reflect that opinion, Ramirez has drawn Democrats as “lying with pigs” amid the muck of character assassination.
“The sad part is, these people are willing to destroy a man’s career and assail him before hearing any testimony, based on little evidence, as part of a political process to delay Kavanaugh’s nomination,” Ramirez said. “Frankly speaking, they should be ashamed of themselves. Ultimately, specious charges such as these undermine the real and serious cases of harassment.”
“Today, like in 1991,” the cartoonist adds, “I would much rather be constitutionally correct than politically correct.”