Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings: 20 years later

This October of 2011 marks the twenty-year anniversary of what is considered to be a landmark event in the struggle for women's rights. I am referring to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings held in October of 1991 and the powerful testimony Anita Hill, a former employee of Thomas's, gave in front of the Senate. For those of you who would like a detailed summary of the events to which I am referring, this link should be helpful.

The impact of the Hill-Thomas hearings on modern-day perceptions of women's rights and, more specifically, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, is difficult to exaggerate. Take, for instance, this article in the Nation magazine.

Anita Hill graduated from Yale Law School in 1980. The percentage of women in law school was 38 percent-in contrast to the approximately 50 percent it is today...if the percentages of women in all professions improved over the next decade or so, the ability to speak up and speak out was often constrained by fear of losing status, ruining one's career. It was the shockingly abysmal treatment of Anita Hill by the United States Senate that changed all that. Women were mobilized in a way unseen since the time of the suffragettes.

To understand why women were mobilized to such an extent, it must be noted, as the Patricia Williams article hints at, that Anita Hill's testimony in front of the Senate, as frightening as it must have been for her, was not greeted with the near-universal sympathy one would expect from an alleged sexual harassment victim. In her testimony, Hill was referring to incidents that took place while she was an assistant to Clarence Thomas, first at the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where Thomas served as chairman. She had worked for Thomas for two years in both positions, between 1981 and 1983.

Undoubtedly, in a situation such as this, it is normal to expect a degree of skepticism, particularly if, as was described in this matter, it appears to be a case of "he said, she said." It is always very difficult in circumstances such as this to determine with certainty who is telling the truth. That being said, the virulence and anger with which Hill's allegations were greeted, mainly by conservatives who had reason to be sympathetic to a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court, pushed women all over the country to rally to Hill's support.

Twenty years later, Anita Hill's testimony detailing alleged sexual harassment she endured while working under her boss undoubtedly still resonates with many women today, not least those who have suffered some form of sexual harassment, either in or outside the workplace. This powerful event has left a legacy as a key point in the struggle to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in America, especially in situations involving an imbalance in power, such as that which existed between Anita Hill, the assistant, and Clarence Thomas, the boss.

Here, you will find a transcript of the hearings.


Caitlin said...

One of the things that still really baffles me is the fact that after all of the allegations made by Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas was still confirmed. Recently, I learned via by law-nerd boyfriend that Thomas was known to openly frequent at least one or two pornographic theaters in New Haven every day as his way to take a break from his rigorous Yale Law School education. Perhaps this is one reason why he, and the rest of the primarily male justices have historically had a lot of tolerance for adult pornography.

All in all, I am ashamed that someone who clearly mistreated his female employees ended up in a cushy, lifetime appointed, respectable position in which his decisions have tremendous impact on the women he clearly does not respect.

S said...

First, I agree with Caitlin: I am shocked that Clarence Thomas was confirmed.

Second, what I find empowering is the support Ms. Hill received from people and the awareness of sexual harrassement in the work place. “According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases have more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Over the same period, awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million.” See

Equally as uplifting is the fact that Ms. Hill did not hide under a rock after the hearings. She continued having a career and is now a Professor at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

Regardless of whether the Clarence Thomas hearings have ended or not,, Ms. Hill certainly has moved on. Her recent, "Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home,", is evidence of her resisting the media's desire to place Ms. Hill in a box: the woman that testified against Clarence Thomas.

However, it is important to remember the impact she has had on the American people and the way we conceptualize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Girl Talk said...

I agree with both Caitlin and S that I am baffled by Clarence Thomas' confirmation. What also baffles me, and makes me angry, is that a Supreme Court justice can get away with sexual harassment while Senators are forced to resign for, essentially, sexting. Isn't sexual harassment more of a concern than who Anthony Weiner sends pictures of his junk to?

Take Newt Gingrich. It's not exactly a secret that he is a serial adulterist. He cheated on his first wife, then married the woman he cheated with, then cheated on her, and now THAT woman is his current wife! And according to some polls he is now the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. What?! The party that consistently runs on family values and slaps a red A on any politician who does anything sexually deviant is behind this guy?

Sexual harassment is more of a concern to me than adultery with regard to politicians or those in the judiciary, and every time I read about Clarence Thomas it makes my blood boil.