Much energy has been spent in recent weeks arguing that Americans, particularly those on the left, need to re-examine how the public responded to the sexual harassment and assault allegations against former president Bill Clinton.
It was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault; the women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks. But Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today’s accused men have experienced. Rather, he was rescued by a surprising force: machine feminism. The movement had by then ossified into a partisan operation, and it was willing — eager — to let this friend of the sisterhood enjoy a little droit de seigneur.
But the allegations against Clinton are not the only claims in the 1990s that some say were handled poorly — and some argue that they are not the most relevant right now either, considering he no longer holds a public office.
There were also sexual harassment allegations in 1991 that involve a man who remains in one of the highest positions of power in the United States: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Anita Hill alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she was in her mid-20s and worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas denied the allegations and called the proceedings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” He was confirmed by the Senate, 52 to 48.
The Daily Beast’s Joy Ann Reid wrote:
Most Americans chose not to believe Hill, who was castigated as a liar, a temptress, and a race-traitor trying to keep a black man off the Supreme Court. Never mind that the American Bar Association had delivered a mixed verdict on whether he was even qualified for a lifetime appointment of such grandeur. I can personally recall knockdown, drag out arguments with black colleagues and relatives who were defending Thomas, and demanding a West Indian gypsy cab driver in the Bronx pull over and let me out of his car after he called Hill a whore.
While some political leaders like former vice president Joe Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of Thomas’s confirmation, have shifted to focusing on believing women in 2017, Hill told The Washington Post that she feels efforts to right past wrongs by Biden have fallen short:
I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened. And he also doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair. It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.
The image of Hill testifying reminds us of so many of the power imbalances that still exist in our society.
Hill was a 35-year-old black woman from rural Oklahoma.
The committee consisted solely of white men in a higher position of power, many of them significantly older than Hill.
Race and age are often missing from the current conversation about sexual harassment and assault, despite black women speaking out about sexual predators for years, said Tarana Burke, the creator of the #MeToo movement.
What history has shown us time and again is that if marginalized voices — those of people of color, queer people, disabled people, poor people — aren’t centered in our movements then they tend to become no more than a footnote. I often say that sexual violence knows no race, class or gender, but the response to it does. . . . We can’t afford a racialized, gendered or classist response.
More than a quarter of a century later, the allegations against Thomas are a reminder that despite how much we like to believe society has changed, much has remained the same. But if the country wants to move forward, for some that will require revisiting how Biden, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, and his peers handled a woman’s allegations against a man who sits on our most powerful court.
Annys Shin and Libby Casey contributed to this report.