On October 11, 1991, Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor, sat for more than six hours before a panel of senators – all men, all white – and explained how Clarence Thomas, candidate for judge of the Court Supremo, and her former boss, had harassed her for years. With a slow voice and a serious gesture, she repeated over and over the details of how Thomas had pressured her to go out with him, commented on the type of porn she liked, or made jokes about pubic hair. Also how he threatened her with the consequences of having her comments and actions in the office.
The candidate for a lifetime office with the power to mark the lives of millions of people for decades was then the bet of President George HW Bush and his candidacy had a symbolic weight as he was the second African American who could serve in the Supreme Court. Thomas and his defenders used this letter. The magistrate said he was suffering “a high-tech lynching of arrogant blacks.” The African American community was divided and many, conservatives and not, sympathized with his cause.
Joe Biden then ran the proceedings in which Hill was often treated as if she were in a trial in which she was the defendant. The jokes and giggles among politicians were repeated, with Republicans portraying her as a lesbian, in love with Thomas, prude or a sex addict, depending on the day. Biden did not prevent the proceedings from taking so long that public testimony from at least two other women who had similar experiences with Thomas and who were ready to testify could not be included in the hearing. Their testimonies remained in writing, but went unnoticed.
The Senate confirmed Judge Thomas with 52 votes in favor and 48 against. Today he is the longest serving judge on the court, and his very conservative positions largely define what is now the United States Supreme Court.
Jane Mayer, journalist from New Yorker, wrote with Jill Abramson, who would later become director of the New York Times, a book on Thomas’s confirmation process titled Strange Justice. Mayer and Abramson uncovered “tons of evidence” that Thomas had lied under oath. Mayer says that in 2018 Judge Brett Kavanaugh repeated “the same manual” at his confirmation hearing and successfully presented himself as a victim to the Christine Blasey Ford allegations.
“The idea that we potentially have two judges on the Supreme Court, two out of nine, who probably lied under oath by denying that they harassed women has huge ramifications,” says the journalist in the excellent and just published podcast Because of Anita. He believes that these two hearings have damaged the credibility of the Supreme Court and the confidence of Americans in the Government.
Anita Hill would later say that she had no illusions about her ability to stop Thomas’ appointment. He was not seeking any compensation or complaint. Just tell the truth. They asked her about her experience and she believed it was her duty as a United States citizen to share it. I did not expect more. The most immediate consequence for her was that she had to leave her post at the University of Oklahoma under pressure to resign after the hearing.
Anita Hill also didn’t expect what happened next. That audience, with the apparent cronyism among those senators, stirred consciences. One of the effects was the first wave of women’s candidacies for Congress and local assemblies. 1992 is still known as “the year of the woman” for the election of a then record number of women to the Senate and other political offices.
It also sparked the first conversation about harassment of women at work and the effect it had on equal opportunities. Women, especially those of younger generations, mobilized.
“They woke up to sexual harassment that most women, myself included, were ignorant of. I hardly knew there was something like that that you could complain about. It seemed like a way of life. Women across the country got angry and organized “says Jane Mayer.
The second “year of the woman” for politics in the United States was 2018, following the election of a president accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault and the confirmation of Kavanaugh.
Anita Hill, who now publishes a memoir, spent years in silence, dedicated to her academic work away from the cameras.
A decade ago, when he decided to start appearing in public, he came across something he did not expect. In a talk he gave in a high school cafeteria, a teenage boy raised his hand and asked, “How does it feel to know that you have changed the world?”