Twenty-seven years ago, a woman walked into a Senate hearing room to testify about sexual harassment she said she had faced from a Supreme Court nominee who denied her claims.
On Thursday, a woman will walk into a different Senate hearing room and testify about the current high-court nominee — a man who denies her allegations that he sexually assaulted her while they were in high school.
Echoes of Anita Hill’s historic testimony against Justice Clarence Thomas were unmistakable this week as the country braced for Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Though separated by nearly three decades, Thursday’s hearing comes during a political moment similar to the one the nation witnessed in 1991, playing out as a record number of women vie for office in the midterm elections.
Back then, Hill’s testimony helped galvanize a movement that tripled the number of female senators in Congress and turned women’s representation a rallying cry in political races around the country.
Fueling that effort were the widely broadcast images of 35-year-old Hill fielding questions from an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991. At the time of the hearing, only two senators were women — and neither was on the committee that vets potential Supreme Court justices.
Hill described the moment she first entered the hearing room in her 1997 book “Speaking Truth to Power.”
The chaotic scene “startled me momentarily,” wrote Hill, who did not respond to a request for comment.
“The focal point of the large room was a long table draped in a bright green cloth. . . . Immediately to my right and left were throngs of photographers; behind me were my advisers, more journalists, staffers, and other nameless observers. In front of me, facing me and the bank of journalists, was the Senate Judiciary Committee — fourteen white men dressed in dark gray suits.”
Hill’s allegations had burst into public view less than a week earlier when she gave an interview to NPR about Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The next day, the University of Oklahoma law professor held a news conference where she volunteered to testify in greater detail before the Judiciary Committee.
Thomas, who denied Hill’s charges, addressed the committee first. Hill watched his remarks from her hotel room on Capitol Hill before departing for the Russell Senate Office Building.
When she arrived, Hill did not know she would be testifying the whole day.
“We walked swiftly through a gauntlet of reporters and camera operators filling the hallways. Every one of our steps echoes down the long corridor of the Russell Building, with its fifteen-foot ceiling. Senate staffers stepped out of their offices to watch the parade,” she wrote.
“As I walked down that corridor, I was certain that every journalist in the country was there. I was wrong. There were far more in the caucus room — reporters, photographers, camera operators, crew members — all waiting to capture the story.”
Hill’s hearing took place in the Kennedy Caucus Room, a large ceremonial chamber with a gilded ceiling that previously played host to the Watergate committee. She was accompanied by 12 family members, as well as lawyers and friends.
“My mother, would be eighty in five days, embraced me as cameras flash-froze the moment for posterity,” she wrote.
By contrast, Ford will testify Thursday in a smaller, more utilitarian committee room with little space for spectators or journalists.
For eight hours, a poised Hill spoke in sometimes explicit terms about Thomas’s alleged harassment, the room growing “unbearably warm” under the “hot glare of the lights and cameras,” she wrote.
By 7:40 p.m., when the first day of the hearing concluded, she was in “excruciating pain” from a preexisting medical condition that had caused tumors in her abdomen.
Underneath her turquoise linen suit, “my body was drenched with perspiration from both the tension and the pain,” Hill wrote.
Ford is expected to spend much less time before the panel, with each member of the Judiciary Committee allotted five minutes to question her. She will testify first, followed by Kavanaugh. No other witnesses are scheduled.
By contrast, the Hill-Thomas hearings lasted three days. Several witnesses attested to Hill’s truthfulness and said she had previously told them about Thomas’s alleged behavior.
Despite that, the Senate confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52 to 48.
Hill wrote that the testimony of two other women who were not allowed to testify, Angela Wright and Sukari Hardnett, would have helped rebut Thomas’s denial that he ever mistreated his staff.
“In the end, the Senate seemed hostile to hearing from any of us,” she wrote. “Neither Wright nor Hardnett was called, and I was allowed to testify only after public pressure mandated it.”
The gender balance on the committee has shifted since 1991. Four of the Democratic senators questioning Ford will be women. The Republican side, which has no female members, tapped a female sex crimes prosecutor to ask questions.
Ford’s hearing could prove a pivotal moment — the first for a high-court nominee since the #MeToo era radically changed the kind of behavior that is tolerated of public officials and powerful executives.
Since she came forward in an interview with The Washington Post, the 51-year-old research psychologist has stayed entirely out of the public eye. Her lawyers have said she faces death threats.
Hill, too, wrote that she faced threats against her life.
“What happened in October 1991 should not have happened to me or anyone else,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, it did. . . . My life has been forever changed.”