But in so many ways, 2018’s “Anita Hill moment” is very different from what came before.
The racial dynamics are completely different.
Thomas and Hill are both black. Ford and Kavanaugh are both white. Why does this matter? In 1991, Thomas arguably used his race to his advantage when he called the confirmation hearings a “high-tech lynching”— calling up the history of false sexual assault allegations against black men. Research has shown that calling out political attacks as racial can be an effective political strategy. This may be one reason that 63 percent of blacks supported Thomas.
While race helped Thomas, it worked against Hill. Historically, black women’s allegations about sexual assault have been believed less than those of white women. Indeed, for centuries, rape and other forms of sexual assault perpetrated against black women were rarely deemed criminal. Studies have found that black women are less likely than white women to report sexual assault and that they feel police will not consider the incident “serious enough.”
Research by political scientist Heather Hicks argues that black women are stereotyped as strong and assertive, while white women are characterized as passive and warm. Black women, like Hill, are penalized for appearing assertive. These stereotypes probably influenced the different ways people viewed Hill and Ford.
The #MeToo movement did not exist 27 years ago.
What’s more, between Hill and Ford have come several major social changes.
The 1991 Hill-Thomas hearings marked the first time many Americans had ever heard the term “sexual harassment.” The hearings so outraged women that a women’s movement was ignited, resulting in the election of a record number of women in 1992. The changes that movement made are becoming visible now. For one thing, the female members of Congress who seemed like insurgents then are now power players in Washington.
For another, attitudes about women and sexual assault have changed dramatically with the intervening generations. That includes the #MeToo movement that exploded after Donald Trump was elected president despite sexual misconduct allegations and recorded boasting about sexual assault. Revelations of sexual harassment, coercion and assault have brought down, among others, elected officials including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). And a record number of women have again won their parties’ nominations for the 2018 midterm elections.
In other words, before the allegations against Kavanaugh, American voters were already primed to think and to speak up about gender and sexual misconduct in the current political climate. And while Anita Hill was alone in the Clarence Thomas hearing, the news media have reported on several other women’s sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.
People were less likely to believe Hill, but are more likely to believe Ford.
In October 1991, after Thomas’s confirmation hearing, a New York Times/CBS News poll asked whether respondents believed Thomas or Hill; 24 percent said they believed Hill, while 58 percent said they believed Thomas. By contrast, a recent NPR/Marist poll, held before the Kavanaugh hearing, found that about 32 percent of Americans believe Ford, while about 26 percent believe Kavanaugh.
That breaks down sharply by party and gender. Vox reported this week that according to a Fox News poll released before the committee hearing, “59 percent of Democrats believe Ford, and 60 percent of Republicans believe Kavanaugh.” Further, the poll found, “Women believe Ford by a 10-point margin, 38 percent to 28 percent, while men believe her by a one-point difference, 34 percent to 33 percent.”
A record number of voters oppose the Kavanaugh nomination.
Before the hearings, a PBS News Hour/NPR/Marist survey found that 29 percent of voters would confirm Kavanaugh while 59 percent were opposed. The October 1991 New York Times/CBS News poll found that before and after the Hill-Thomas hearing, attitudes toward Thomas did not shift substantially. Both before and after it, Americans favored Thomas’s confirmation by a ratio of 2 to 1.
A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll finds that Kavanaugh’s support has dropped 18 points among Republican women. When a plurality of white women supported the Republican Party candidate in the 2016 presidential election, it seemed that these women voted for him despite concerns about his alleged sexual misconduct. That may be different now. Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) has raised concerns about Kavanaugh in light of recent allegations. At a minimum, some Republican women may be unwilling to side with their party to dismiss women’s sexual assault allegations as trivial.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is no longer entirely male.
Ford testified before three of the same men who were on the 1991 committee: Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), and Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt). The Republican side of the committee remains all-male. But the Democratic side now includes four women: ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii).
Political scientist Lyn Kathlene finds that as the proportion of women increases in a legislative body, male legislators become more verbally aggressive and controlling in public hearings, something observers noted when Grassley repeatedly interrupted not just Ford and the female senators but even Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor Republicans hired to handle their questioning — specifically to avoid the gendered critiques of the 1991 hearings.
Having female senators there did make a difference. Feinstein set the tone by insisting that Ford be properly introduced, including her academic accomplishments, as did not happen for Hill. Following Feinstein’s lead, each Democratic member of the committee began with a statement of support — as Hill herself suggested in a recent New York Times op-ed.
No single factor can fully account for the different public responses to Hill and to Ford. Race matters. The #MeToo movement matters. Enough has changed over the past 30 years that we cannot say with any certainty that Kavanaugh will be confirmed despite the allegations, as Thomas was.
But just as the Thomas/Hill hearings affected the next elections, so, too, the Kavanaugh hearings will almost certainly affect the 2018 midterm elections. And women watching will almost certainly take note of the fact that, still, the Senate Judiciary Committee is overwhelmingly male.
Chaya Crowder is a PhD candidate in the politics department at Princeton University.