WASHINGTON — The sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh recall Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas in 1991, but there are important differences as well as cautions for senators considering how to deal with the allegations.
The decision to have Thomas and Hill testify publicly before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Kavanaugh and his accuser will do next Monday, had far-reaching implications for American politics and society’s efforts to grapple with sexual harassment in the workplace.
Republicans were perceived as too harsh in their questioning of Hill. Democrats faced criticism for being timid in her defense. Former Vice President Joe Biden, then the committee chairman, told Teen Vogue magazine last year that he should have acted more thoroughly on Hill’s accusations.
“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology,” said Biden, a Democrat.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which once appeared all but certain, was cast in doubt after Christine Blasey Ford said in an interview published Sunday by The Washington Post that a drunken Kavanaugh groped her and tried to take off her clothes at a party when they were teenagers. Ford said Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.
Kavanaugh, who was nominated by President Donald Trump, said in a statement Monday that Ford’s accusation was “completely false.”
There are parallels in the two cases. Like Kavanaugh, Thomas denied he had acted inappropriately. In both cases, the allegations became public only after the nominees went through their initial confirmation hearings. Both accusers initially sought to stay anonymous but later changed their minds.
Twenty-five years ago, Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment from then-nominee Clarence Thomas. Hill joined Gwen Ifill in 2016 to look back at the case, her experience and how it would have been different today.
In 1991, an estimated 20 million people watched as Hill, then a University of Oklahoma law professor, accused Thomas of making unwanted advances and lewd remarks when she worked for him at the Education Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s.
Thomas, who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush, related in his memoir that when he was first asked by FBI agents whether he made sexual advances to Hill or talked about pornography with her, he replied, “Absolutely not.” By the time he testified in a second round of hearings, following Hill, he said, “From my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.”
Republicans aggressively questioned Hill, who is also black, suggesting that she had made up the unwelcome advances from Thomas and trying to raise doubts about her stability.
Thomas won confirmation by a vote of 52 to 48, with 11 Democrats supporting him in a Senate they controlled.
But on both sides of the aisle, there was wide agreement that the questioning of Thomas and Hill was not the Senate Judiciary Committee’s finest hour. For one thing, the committee was made up of 14 white men, and there were only two women in the entire Senate at the time.
By comparison, the current committee has 11 Republicans, all men, and 10 Democrats, four of whom are women. Overall, there are now 23 women in the Senate: 17 Democrats and six Republicans.
Coming just a year before the 1992 presidential and congressional elections, the hearings were credited with helping spur the first year of the woman in American politics. A half dozen women won Senate races that year and early in 1993.
One of them, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said recently on Twitter that she first ran for the Senate “after my daughter and I watched Anita Hill being grilled by an all-male Judiciary Committee that didn’t look anything like me or so many others across the country and that wasn’t asking the questions so many of us wanted asked.”
I was motivated to run for the Senate after watching the truly awful way Anita Hill was treated by an all-male Judiciary Committee interrogating her about the now-Justice Clarence Thomas.
It was wrong in 1991. It’s wrong in 2018 and we must do better this time.
— Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) September 18, 2018
The allegations against Kavanaugh by Ford, a Palo Alto University professor, are occurring in a society that has changed since 1991. Spurred on by the #MeToo movement, sexual misconduct receives much more attention than it did then, and allegations of wrongdoing have toppled powerful men in politics, media, the arts and other fields.
In a statement issued Friday, Hill said, “I have seen firsthand what happens when such a process is weaponized against an accuser, and no one should have to endure that again.”