Anita Hill’s truthfulness was brutally questioned. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) accused her of “flat-out perjury.” So was her sanity. I recall a fevered phone call from a White House adviser peddling the notion that Hill suffered from “erotomania,” a psychiatric disorder involving romantic delusions. So was her character. “A little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” was the contemptuous assessment of then-conservative, now-liberal activist David Brock.
Most fundamentally, the all-male panel of senators grilling the Oklahoma law professor about her sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas demonstrated repeatedly, floridly, how much they just didn’t get it.
They preened about taking such conduct oh so seriously, then failed, time after time, to demonstrate any grasp of real-world workplace power imbalances. How could Hill have failed to speak out about this alleged mistreatment at the time? If Thomas had behaved as abominably as Hill claimed, they kept asking, how could she have followed him from one job to another?
And here we go again, with Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, and the unavoidable question: In 27 years, has nothing changed? The temptation will be to lament the persistence of cluelessness. And, yes, the evidence piles up daily, dumb remark after dumb remark, to support that depressing assessment.
But I think the reality is more nuanced. We are, as a society, on an imperfect and agonizingly slow journey toward a place where sexual harassment and sexual assault are not tolerated, and where there is greater understanding of the enormous pressures that weigh on women bringing such claims to remain silent. The progress isn’t linear; the slope of the curve is not as steep as we might have hoped, back in the heady Year of the Woman election the year after the Thomas-Hill hearings.
And yet: In 1991 it did not seem especially abnormal that no women served on the panel grilling Hill. Today, four of 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are women, and the fact that there are no women among the 11 Republican members is causing them exquisite embarrassment. Lawmakers of both parties fear the power of #MeToo. The growing gender gap has Republicans scared.
Hence the early emphasis on Kavanaugh’s feminist bona fides (coaching girls’ basketball, hiring female clerks). Hence, when the allegations against Kavanaugh first surfaced, the immediate, smart, strategic approach encapsulated by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway: that his accuser, as yet unnamed, “should not be insulted and she should not be ignored.”
Except that President Trump can only restrain himself — can only profess respect for women accusing powerful men of wrongdoing — for so long. Five days, to be precise, only to erupt Friday morning with an ignorant assault on Ford’s credibility.
“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” Trump tweeted.
Are we actually confused today, in 2018, about victims’ reluctance to come forward? Teenage victims of sexual assault? Even Trump, perhaps especially Trump, should understand the risk that entails. If not, he might try reading my colleague Elizabeth Bruenig’s sobering account of what happened to a Texas high school classmate who reported she was raped.
If it was not surprising to see Trump reverting to the Trumpian norm on issues of women, sexual assault and believability, it was even more disheartening to witness the obtuseness and dismissiveness that erupted among lawmakers.
There was Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), with this knee-slapper at the Rock Hill Kiwanis Club: “Did y’all hear the latest late-breaking news from the Kavanaugh hearings? Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out [saying] she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.” Hardy-har-har.
That was the worst of it, but not by much. Others showed themselves more upset by the lateness of the charges than by the seriousness of the alleged conduct and the need to determine the veracity of the complaint. “This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), adding, “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), “We got a little hiccup here with the Kavanaugh nomination.”
The lady? A hiccup? No, no, no. The coming days will offer opportunities for more such idiocy, but it will also offer a test of my hopeful hypothesis: The Kavanaugh-Ford hearings, if they are to be, will not be perfect, but neither will they be as offensive as Thomas-Hill. The patriarchy may not be woke, but it is nonetheless being woken up to the perils of its previous obliviousness.