Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) told members of Congress during a hearing on preventing sexual harassment that a trusted source recently divulged to her that a member of Congress exposed himself to a congressional staffer. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) also testified that she was aware of two current congressmen—one a Democrat, the other a Republican—who had engaged in sexual misconduct.
With their statements, Comstock and Speier joined a long list of women in Congress who have stood up against sexual harassment. But perhaps none were more influential than those who demanded the Senate give Anita Hill a chance to testify against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
In 1991, Anita Hill, then a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, stood before the nation to testify to Congress about Thomas. For three days, Americans were transfixed by Hill as she spoke about Thomas’ behavior as her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Education during the 1980s. Crude phrases like “long-dong silver” and “pubic hair” once uttered by Thomas now shocked Americans when they were voiced in the marble enclave of the Capitol. As Hill sat before an all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee, she was afforded the opportunity to testify about Thomas’ inappropriate sexual behavior. But her presence in the Senate that weekend in October was far from a given.
Without the leadership of Congressmembers like Barbara Boxer and Patricia Schroeder, the Senate might have moved forward with Thomas’ confirmation without giving Hill the opportunity to testify—and the American public may not have had the opportunity to critically examine the role of sexual harassment in the workplace and in women’s lives.
The story of how these allegations were brought to light, and how Anita Hill came to testify before the Judiciary Committee, begins in the summer of 1991, in the days following Thomas’ nomination. Sometime between July and August, Alliance for Justice, a liberal public watchdog, became aware that someone who had worked with Thomas and now taught at a university in Oklahoma had divulged to a former Yale Law classmate that Thomas had sexually harassed her. From these nebulous clues, The Alliance determined that Hill was the source and informed a chief counsel for a subcommittee within the Senate Judiciary Committee—who turned the information over the office of Senator Howard Metzenbaum.
Staffers within Metzenmbaum and then-Senator Ted Kennedy’s offices followed up on the lead, but were initially unsuccessful in getting a confirmation from Hill herself. Hill eventually described her allegations to Ricki Seidman, Kennedy’s chief investigator, after Seidman assured Hill that the Senate Judiciary Committee would protect her identity. Soon after, the FBI initiated an investigation—in which they visited Hill in her home and collected an official statement from her.
Publicly, the confirmation hearings for Thomas concluded on September 20th, just as the FBI investigation got underway. Five days later, the FBI handed over their report to the Judiciary Committee. Even though the report was available for Senators to view, they were not mandated to do so. Then-Senatoe Joe Biden informed other members of the body that the report and Hill’s statement were available, but no copies were distributed.
Hill became concerned that the committee members had not read their statement; through her colleagues’ contacts, Hill spoke with Democratic Senator Paul Simon, who warned her that it would be nearly impossible to maintain her confidentiality if they distributed the statement to the body directly. “You can’t distribute it to one hundred senators and keep the thing confidential,” Simon explained. “You have to make a very difficult decision—whether to go public or not.”
Hill made the decision to maintain her confidentiality. Even so, she continued to pursue the matter privately and the Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee were provided with copies of Hill’s statement.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the report had remained confidential in the hands of the Senate. But, in the last days of September, Newsday reporter Timothy M. Phelps learned from a credible source that the FBI was looking into “allegations of personal misconduct” concerning Thomas.
NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg had also learned of the allegations—and somehow, she got her hands on a copy of Hill’s affidavit. After reading it back to Hill over the telephone, she agreed to an interview.
On October 6th, both Phelps and Totenberg publicly reported on Hill’s allegations Phelps’ front-page story ran with the headline “The Thomas Charge: Law Prof Told FBI He Sexually Harassed Her at EEOC,” while Totenberg broadcasted part of her taped interview with Hill.
On October 8th, the day Senators were scheduled to vote on Thomas’ confirmation, seven Democratic female representatives from the House stormed the Senate to protest. Their demand? No vote on Thomas without more thoroughly pursuing Hill’s allegations.
During standard one-minute floor speeches, in which representatives are permitted one minute to speak on any topic, members spoke to their frustrations over the failure of members of the Senate to call on Hill to testify. However, when Representative Rosa DeLauro got up to give her one-minute speech, she referred to her audience as “Senate”—violating a procedural rule that the Senate had to be referred to as “the upper body.” In an interview with Lisa Chase from Elle, Rep. Barbara Boxer remembers a Republican congressman shouting, “Violation of the rules!”
The proceedings came to a halt as House leadership discussed how to continue, leading to a 15-minute vote to decide whether DeLauro could continue speaking. Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats were meeting in the other chamber. Washington D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton told Chase: “We had no reason to believe [the Senate’s leaders] were going to make the right decision.”
That’s when Barbara Boxer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Pat Schroeder, Nita Lowey, Patsy Mink, Jolene Unsoeld and Louise Slaughter made their way to the Senate and knocked at the door—only to be told that they couldn’t enter. “If you don’t let us in,” Boxer responded to Democratic leader George Mitchell’s assistant, “you see all those cameras down there? They’re going to wonder why we came back down.” Fearing a media nightmare, Mitchell came to speak with the female lawmakers; eventually, the women were given the opportunity to express their frustration to Senator Biden, whom they urged to allow Hill to testify before the Judiciary Committee.
At the same time, Thomas was calling for a delay in the Senate’s confirmation vote to “appear before the appropriate forum and clear my name.” The Senate heeded his request. Shortly thereafter, Hill received a phone call from Biden notifying her that she would be subpoenaed to testify. Hill assembled a legal team and arrived in Washington D.C. for the hearings that ultimately culminated in three days of riveting testimony.
The Senate spared no punches in attacking Hill. Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) grilled Hill on why she continued to maintain a professional, but distant, relationship with Thomas if her allegations were true. “That is a very good question,” Hill responded, “and I am sure that I cannot answer that to your satisfaction. That is one of the things that I have tried to do today. I have suggested that I was afraid of retaliation, I was afraid of damage to my professional life and I believe that you have to understand that this response—and that is one of the things that I have come to understand about harassment—that this response, this kind of response, is not atypical, and I can’t explain it. It takes an expert in psychology to explain how that can happen, but it can happen, because it happened to me.”
Because it happened to me.
Simpson, and so many others, still couldn’t grasp the deep seated power dynamics at play in sexual harassment. He couldn’t let it go, and condemned Hill’s response. “It just seems so incredible to me,” he declared, “that you would not only have visited with him twice after that period and after he was no longer able to manipulate you or destroy you, that you then not only visited with him but took him to the airport, and then 11 times contacted him. That part of it appalls me. I would think that these things, what you describe, are so repugnant, so ugly, so obscene, that you would never have talked to him again, and that is the most contradictory and puzzling thing for me.”
Simpson was not alone in his disbelief. On the same day that the Senate voted to confirm Thomas as the next Supreme Court Justice by a vote of 58-42, the closest in history. At the time, a reported 58 percent of Americans believed Thomas over Hill. And while Thomas was confirmed to the highest court in the land, Hill returned to Oklahoma—confronted with unrelenting scrutiny and conservative lawmakers who tried to strip her professorship of funding.
Even though a majority of Americans eventually came to believe Hill was telling the truth, the fact that Thomas was chosen as one of nine of the most powerful judicial figures in the United States belies the structural fact that our society does not believe women when it matters most. And even when we do, the men they accuse are often forgiven—or even rewarded.
Now, with damning allegations against men in both parties who serve in some of the nation’s highest offices, America faces a crossroads. Will we repeat the mistakes of 1991? Or will we finally hold powerful men accountable?