Like a pebble thrown in a pond creates widening ripples, the story of sexual harassment unfolding today began at a small dinner party organized by some law professors at American University’s Washington College of Law in the summer of 1991.
Among the guests was Nan Aron, founder and president of Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group. During the dinner, a male law professor casually mentioned he knew about someone who had been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, President George H.W. Bush’s choice to succeed retiring civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, who had argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Court.
Democrats wanted to block the 43-year-old Thomas, who they didn’t think had the stature to fill the seat. An allegation of sexual harassment against him could be ammunition. Aron didn’t get Anita Hill’s name that night, but it wasn’t hard to figure out since the professor mentioned she had worked for Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and that she was from Oklahoma.
The Alliance for Justice had already announced its opposition to Thomas, and Aron turned over the information to members of the Senate Judiciary committee. “I remember telling them we’ve done no investigation on our own,” she told The Daily Beast this week. “We have no idea whether it’s true or not. But since the alleged harassment took place while he was at the EEOC, it could be a major impediment to his ability to be on the Supreme Court.”
After contacting Chairman Joe Biden’s office, she waited several days before calling back to make sure they were investigating. They weren’t, so she found a more receptive audience with staffers working for Senators Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum. Kennedy had just been through his nephew’s date rape trial in Palm Beach, and couldn’t be out front on another sensitive sexual issue, so Metzenbaum, a feisty liberal in his mid-seventies, took the lead in pursuing Hill’s claims.
According to an account in “Strange Justice,” by Jane Mayer and Pamela Abramson, after Metzenbaum heard Hill’s allegations of inappropriate, sexually charged remarks made by Thomas, he told a reporter, “If that’s sexual harassment, half the senators on Capitol Hill could be accused.”
Professor Susan Ross at Georgetown Law School got a call from a senate staffer outlining Hill’s claims as a hypothetical situation, and asking if it would be sexual harassment. Ross said yes it would, and two days later, she was on the phone with Anita Hill. That weekend, Ross and her husband were at a baseball game when the news broke on NPR and in Newsday about Hill’s explosive charges.
“Everything moved very fast after that, and I was asked to be on her legal team,” Ross told the Daily Beast. “The most telling thing Biden did was to keep out other women who could say what he (Thomas) did to them at the EEOC, and a credible corroborating witness who Anita had confided in.”
Biden allowed affidavits from three other women to be entered in the record after the hearing was over, but he didn’t allow in any information from students who were at Yale Law School with Thomas “who could talk about his habit of watching pornography and telling people in great detail what he had seen,” says Ross. “Biden kept out everything that’s not in the workplace.”
Nan Aron had told Newsday reporter Timothy Phelps about Anita Hill, and he started calling her. “I was calling Anita every day for over a week, before the story broke, and she kept asking me what I thought would happen to her if she spoke out,” Phelps told the Daily Beast. “I told her it’s going to be a very hard time. They’ll go after you. I don’t believe in sweet-talking people to give me a story. I told her the truth.”
Hill told Phelps she would talk to him if he got the statement she had sent to the Judiciary Committee. After weeks of vacillating over what to do, Hill was coming to terms with the arcane rules of senate politics. Biden was drawing a bright line between personal and workplace behavior. If Hill wanted to be heard, she could not be anonymous. If she had something to say, she should come to the Committee. They wouldn’t go to her. Instead of sending staffers to interview her, Biden sent the FBI.
In his book, “Capitol Games,” Phelps describes a screaming match between Biden and his top aide, Ron Klain over the Thomas confirmation. Klain opposed Thomas from the start based on his scant record, while Biden was inclined to back him. (Asked recently if he would have done anything differently, Biden said no, and stressed that he believed Anita Hill, and voted against Thomas. The stumbling block, he said, was her initial insistence on anonymity. ;.)
“Biden ended that interview saying Clarence Thomas squeezed by with the highest number of negative votes for a Supreme court justice,” says Aron, “and I’m thinking to this day, you don’t get it, Joe Biden,. In the first set of hearings for Thomas, this ticking time bomb was only obliquely raised. The senators knew about these allegations, but they were reluctant to air the facts.”
NPR’s Nina Totenberg got hold of Hill’s statement, and on Sunday, October 6, 1991, she broke the story. By then, Biden had reluctantly given each Democratic senator a copy of the FBI report on Hill in an envelope marked “Senators’ Eyes Only.” Any hope that Hill had of a hearing that could be held in executive session was gone. The feeding frenzy had begun.
It was a television extravaganza as the country heard firsthand about Thomas allegedly talking about pubic hairs in a Coke can, and Hill’s discomfort even as she followed Thomas from the civil rights division at the Education Department to the EEOC. Her behavior was made to seem aberrant when we now know it is common for women not to say anything sometimes for years after the fact, and to put up with abusive behavior to advance or maintain their careers.
Thomas called the whole thing a “high-tech lynching,” effectively shaming the all-white male Judiciary panel into an uncustomary silence.
“We were so outgunned and outmaneuvered,” says Aron. Hill was portrayed as someone with unfulfilled sexual fantasies while another woman, Angela Wright, waited to testify about her experience with Thomas while working at the EEOC. Wright watched on television as Republican Senator Alan Simpson said he heard she had “cold feet” and might not be testifying.
She responded in a statement that her feet weren’t cold, and she was ready to testify. But the hours slipped by, and it would have been the middle of the night before the committee would hear her, and her corroborating witness, Rose Jourdain, who’d been in the hospital and was ill, could no longer make it. (Jourdain has since passed away.)
Simpson says the Republicans wanted Wright to testify because she’d been fired by Thomas, and she wouldn’t have been credible. The Democrats just wanted to end the X-rated hearings.
“Had the committee allowed her to testify, and if they had asked a series of probing questions about the allegations, we’d be seeing a very different picture now regarding sexual harassment,” says Aron. “During that time, senators didn’t believe Hill or didn’t want to believe her because the truth was too close to home and had such grave consequences, not just for the Court and the senators themselves, but for the country. It could have been a watershed moment.”
Instead, Thomas has now been on the court for 26 years, and—at age 69—may sit for many more.
Republican Senator John Danforth was Thomas’ patron and mentor, and the intervening decades have not altered his view that Thomas was railroaded. In a phone interview, Danforth says the various charges now are so different from then. “It’s pedophilia and physical rape – and it’s also outrageous. The charge against Clarence was dirty talk, and it doesn’t seem in the same ballpark.”
He wonders how to define sexual harassment or improper behavior. “Is it one of those, you know it if you see it – like pedophilia? Or if someone says, ‘That’s a very nice dress’.”
“With Clarence Thomas, it was so horrendous. This ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ character, and this just lands on his head.”
Danforth says there was no due process. The women advocates weren’t allowed to present experts. He had one waiting in the wings too, Park Dietz, a celebrity criminologist with a specialty in workplace violence prevention.
“It was the opposite of a trial. He had no legal protection,” says Danforth. “It was just a big dump.”
Simpson has made his peace with what happened. He said in a phone interview that Biden did the best job he could have in the circumstances. “It’s very interesting to me, whatever happened to Professor Hill, I don’t believe was sexual harassment. We asked her: What did he do to you? Did he touch you? No. Did he attempt to touch you? No. Did he press himself on you? No.
“He watched porn movies on Saturday night at Yale and he wanted to talk about them. Then we heard from the FBI about Long Dong Silver and pubic hairs.
“That won’t get you anywhere. I had a wife and mother, and a daughter, who had been through far worse.”
At the urging of former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who’s now at Berkeley, Simpson called Hill to invite her to speak with his students at Harvard’s Kennedy School some years ago. He assured her he would be away in Gloucester picking out fishing nets, and wouldn’t be there when she came, a promise he kept.
“I have it all figured out, don’t you?” she asked him on the phone. When he said no, she continued, saying she was approached by the pro-choice forces because they knew if Clarence Thomas got on the Court, it would be the end of Roe (the 1973 Court ruling that legalized abortion). Simpson is that rare breed, a pro-choice Republican.
“She said something nice about me on Oprah some years ago,” he said. “So I put it all to rest. It was the worst thing. I looked like a horse’s ass, and I behaved like one too.”
The women who backed Hill are not so forgiving. They are still angry with then Majority Leader George Mitchell for not putting pressure on Democrats to vote against Thomas. In a phone interview, Mitchell said the Democrats had 48 votes against Thomas, and could have filibustered his nomination.
“But most Democratic senators, though not all, agreed with me that a president should get a vote on their nominees. So we did not exercise the right to prevent his nomination by filibuster.”
This was just four years after Democrats had gone for the jugular, rejecting President Reagan’s nominee, Robert Bork, relentlessly attacking everything he had written, going back 25 years. “We thought we should do the right thing in the hope of reversing this downward trend in the way Supreme Court justices were handled,” Mitchell said in a phone interview. “Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t get the right result.”
A liberal activist who asked not to be quoted said, “Do the right thing? George Mitchell can go to his dying days believing he did the right thing, but no, the right thing was not to seat the guy who harassed Anita Hill.”
The Democrats needed three more votes to defeat Thomas. Mitchell did not arm-twist anyone. Instead, the activist says, at Mitchell’s direction, the Senate hired a special counsel to find out who leaked Hill’s statements to Totenberg and Phelps.
After four months, the probe concluded there were multiple sources, and that no single source could be identified.
Angela Wright returned to North Carolina, where she is a senior leader at the OpEd Project. Her description of Thomas showing up at her apartment one night, and asking about the size of her breasts, is entered into the record of the hearing, along with the testimony of a corroborating witness, Rose Jourdain. “It wasn’t like I was afraid of him. It was just stuff he said and he did,” Wright is quoted saying in a Roll Call column last year by Mary C. Curtis.
A third woman, Sukari Hardnett said in her affidavit, “If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive and worked directly for Clarence Thomas, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female.”
Their affidavits got little attention as the circus moved on, allowing Republicans to maintain the fiction that Hill was a “one-off,” and not at all comparable to the serial harassing that we see today. A Gallup poll had 54 percent believing Thomas, and 27 percent believing Hill. Among African-Americans, 71 percent favored confirmation.
“Anita put the issue on the map, but she didn’t win and she was pilloried in the process,” says Phelps, the reporter who broke the story in Newsday. “We didn’t attempt to litigate the truth, whether Thomas or Hill was telling the truth. One truth was the way the Senate Judiciary committee mistreated the victim for daring to raise her hand.”
That is the message that a lot of women took away. At a women’s conference in California the following year, women literally stood on their chairs and waved their napkins in support when Hill entered the ballroom. The cooks and wait staff lined up to catch a glimpse of a new feminist hero. “It was a very concrete demonstration of the chord she had struck,” says Marcia Greenberger with the National Women’s Law Center.
As for Hill herself, she responded in an email, “It does seem that this cultural moment will have lasting impact.”