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Revisiting Anita Hill in the wake of the Kavanaugh allegations

Anita Hill reflects on her 1991 testimony about sexual harassment, the slow pace of change, and today’s #MeToo movement with The Washington Post’s Libby Casey. (Video: The Washington Post)

For many Americans, the sexual assault allegations facing a Supreme Court nominee are ringing a bell.

Christine Blasey Ford, a professor in California, is accusing Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of physically assaulting her when they were teenagers. The Washington Post’s Emma Brown reported that “one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both stumbling drunk,’ Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County.”

While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.
“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” said Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in northern California. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.”

More than 25 years ago, professor Anita Hill accused Justice Clarence Thomas, then President George H.W. Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, of sexual harassment. Hill said that Thomas, her boss from 1981 to 1983 at the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had repeatedly sexually harassed her, including attempting to discuss pornographic films with her and his own sexual prowess.

Kavanaugh has denied the allegations, as Thomas did back then. Hill testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of mostly white, male lawmakers. Now Ford has also expressed a willingness to testify.

“She’s willing to do whatever it takes to get her story forth," Ford’s attorney, Debra Katz, said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show.

The stories aren’t identical, and neither are the times. One big difference: Much of the new discussion about how Congress and society should respond comes against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, the effort to highlight the prevalence of sexual assault against women.

Hill spoke to The Washington Post’s Libby Casey last year about how the #MeToo movement has changed discussions about sexual misconduct.

CASEY: If you could go back in time is that what you would tell 35-year-old Anita Hill about? 
HILL: I would tell 35-year-old me that yes, there were women who have come before you. They’ve come forward in courts, they have come forward to raise complaints to bosses, to their harassers. And that this moment is not a singular moment. Well, it in some ways it’s a singular moment, but it is also a part of the arc. 
CASEY: It is not isolated. 
HILL: It’s not isolated. It’s not on its own. It’s part of the arc and it’s an arc that I think we are now seeing made more visible because of the #MeToo movement.

“The reluctance of someone to come forward demonstrates that even in the #MeToo era, it remains incredibly difficult to report harassment, abuse or assault by people in power,” Hill’s spokeswoman told Politico after Ford’s allegations were reported. "Given the seriousness of these allegations, the government needs to find a fair and neutral way for complaints to be investigated.”

Part of making these cases more “fair and neutral” depends on who is in power to oversee the investigation of them.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who as a senator chaired the committee during Hill’s testimony, revisited last year how he responded to her accusations. “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” he said. “I owe her an apology.”

Ford’s story is a chance for members of Congress, whose commitment to believing women who speak out about sexual misconduct has repeatedly been questioned, to respond better than they did to Hill.

The Thomas hearings inspired many women to enter politics immediately after her testimony. And many of the women running for office since then, including in 2018, have spoken out on the importance of believing women when they take their allegations public.

This incident will be the first test of whether the #MeToo movement can reshape the highest court in the land. Ultimately, it will be Congress and the White House that show how much — or how little — has changed over the past 30 years.