Biden, who is mulling a 2020 presidential bid, oversaw the hearing as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some on Tuesday made note of Biden’s language, pointing out that his use of the word “couldn’t” implied that he had been powerless to change the course of the hearing.
During the 1991 hearing, Hill testified that Thomas had repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances toward her when she worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas denied the allegations.
Hill, who is black, faced incredulous and accusatory questioning from the panel, which was composed entirely of white men. Biden did little to temper the tone, and Hill and her defenders have blamed him for letting the hearing spiral out of control.
Biden on Tuesday made note of the racial and gender dynamics of the hearing, telling the crowd that Hill was facing “a bunch of white guys hearing this testimony on the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
“So, when Anita Hill came to testify, she faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell it was all about,” he said.
He called Hill “a brave lawyer, a really notable woman” who “showed the courage of a lifetime” by testifying about her allegations against Thomas.
“We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago,” Biden said. “But she paid a terrible price. She was abused through the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could’ve done something.”
Biden has previously said he has regretted his role in the hearing, including at an event hosted by Glamour magazine in November 2017, when he said he was “so sorry that she had to go through what she went through.”
In an interview with The Washington Post a few days later, Hill said “some part of” Biden’s remarks was an apology, “but I still don’t think it takes ownership of his role in what happened.”
Biden also addressed the issue in an interview with Teen Vogue the next month, saying, “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology.” He returned to the topic in interviews around the time of September’s confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who faced accusations of sexual assault. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.
During his remarks on Tuesday, Biden noted that he has previously apologized for the Thomas hearing and said it was particularly courageous of Hill to have spoken out given societal views on sexual harassment at the time.
“It took a lot of courage to damage her own career and her own reputation in the face of a cultural bias that if a woman was harassed or abused, she must have done something to deserve it,” he said.
He also referred to the Kavanaugh hearing, noting that the Senate Judiciary Committee “has the power and obligation to set a standard for the nation.”
“It should not be one of the most difficult places for a woman to lay out a story of abuse and harassment,” Biden said. “And yet, last fall, you saw it all over again in the Kavanaugh hearing. In almost 30 years, the culture, the institutional culture has not changed. And that diminishes the likelihood that other women will come forward, knowing what they’re going to face.”
Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.