Even now, with the healing distance of two decades, the subject of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas retains its power to provoke and divide.
It was 20 years ago this month that Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment surfaced, threatening to derail Thomas’s imminent confirmation to the Supreme Court. I spent the weekend-long marathon of hearings in the Senate Caucus Room, the majestic setting of soaring marble columns and gilded ceiling contrasting with the squalid details of Hill’s allegations.
It was both riveting and horrifying. By the time the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings were gaveled to a close at 2 a.m. Monday, I — like everyone else — was simply relieved that it was over.
Looking back, it is possible to trace the larger cultural and political legacy, both good and bad, of that painful moment.
First, the Thomas-Hill hearings heralded a coarsening of the national dialogue. It goes too far to suggest cause and effect; there is no straight line between the hearings and, say, wardrobe malfunctions or “Jersey Shore.” But the hearings, with their nationally televised discussion of Thomas’s alleged tastes in pornography and his explicit overtures, crossed an invisible line into a cruder culture.
A few years earlier, I had covered a trial involving a sexual act that the existing stylebook would let me describe, rather misleadingly, only as “sodomy.” A few years later, the nation found itself in a graphic discussion about the precise meaning of “sexual relations” and the DNA evidence on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
The intervening experience of the Thomas-Hill hearings, with the discussion of Thomas’s alleged interest in “Long Dong Silver” and commentary about pubic hair on a Coke can, helped define deviancy downward. As we sat at the press table during the most explicit testimony, the New York Times reporter turned to me, a stricken look on his face, and asked how we were going to write about all this, given our newspapers’ notorious queasiness about sexual matters. In the end, our stories were unexpurgated.
Second, the hearings heralded — although again they did not create — an intensifying of the partisan divide. The 1987 fight over the failed nomination of Robert Bork was intense but nowhere near as personal or partisan.
As with the Clinton impeachment several years later, the Thomas nomination witnessed each side automatically lining up in support of, or in opposition to, the protagonist. Senators who wanted to see Thomas on the high court credited his version of events; those who wanted him defeated for other reasons chose to believe Hill. The facts themselves took second place to political interests.
Indeed, the very women’s groups most exercised about Thomas’s alleged misconduct were notably, shamefully silent when it came to Clinton’s behavior with a White House intern and his false statements under oath.
In hindsight, the Thomas confirmation seems almost quaint, with the Senate’s majority vote in favor of the nominee. The possibility of a filibuster was bargained away early on. Today, an option that once seemed nuclear has become the norm.
The third legacy of the Thomas hearings is a positive one: lower tolerance for sexual harassment and greater political prominence for women. Back then, an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee was inclined to ignore the Hill allegations. That would not happen today, with two women on the panel, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Two women served in the Senate in 1991; there are 17 today.
As to sexual harassment, of course such behavior still occurs and some women still endure it, rather than speak out. But Hill’s reluctant testimony educated and chastened many men, and it emboldened many women. The workplace of 2011 may not be perfect, but it is a better, fairer place.
For me, the final legacy of the hearings is entirely personal: It’s how I met my husband, who worked on the committee staff for a Democratic senator. Late on the weekend that the Hill story leaked, as I was scrambling to confirm it, he returned my phone call, explaining that he had been away at his grandmother’s 90th birthday party.
Who, he asked, was Anita Hill? He seemed like a nice guy, so with uncharacteristic patience, I brought him up to speed, instead of following my instinct to pronounce him useless and hang up. It was only months later — after we started dating — that I discovered he was feigning ignorance out of professional caution.
Twenty years and two beautiful children later, I still believe Anita Hill. But I owe an odd, unpayable debt to Justice Thomas.