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Anita Hill Warned Us; Too Few Listened

US law professor Anita Hill takes oath, 12 October 1991, before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C.. Hill filed sexual harassment charges against US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Jennifer Law/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 11, 1991, Anita Hill testified before Congress, under oath, for more than four and a half hours. She was there to testify that Clarence Thomas, then a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her multiple times when she worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill recounted how, at the education department, Thomas asked to see her socially and, when she declined, he began talking to her, graphically, about sex and pornography. At the EEOC, the harassment by Thomas began anew, she said. He asked her why she wouldn't go out with him, she told Congress, commented on her clothes, and talked to her about the size of his penis.

Hill followed every rule that day. She gave a detailed opening statement and did her best to explain why she had done what many people do when they are harassed, which is quietly remove themselves from the situation and try to go on with their lives. She answered questions from sitting senators that included "Are you a scorned woman?" and "Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?" as well as "Do you have anything to gain by coming here?" A reference to what she said about Thomas was called "a mere allegation." And one senator asked: "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." The hearing was run by the committee's chairman, current Democratic president Joe Biden.

What Hill said was not seriously investigated and, decades later, Thomas would cast one of the votes in ending our country's nearly 50-year commitment to abortion as a legal right across all 50 states. In fact, Thomas went so far as to write his own opinion, not only striking down the right to an abortion, but saying that he believed other decisions needed to overturned as well. The ruling that made same-sex marriage legal? He wants that gone. The ruling protecting birth control? Get rid of it too, he said. The ruling protecting intimacy between two people of the same sex? He'd also like that one done away with as well. Thomas is sending up a signal flare, telling those who, like him, would also like the these legal rights abolished to get a case before him and he will take it from there.

The confidence, the surety that Thomas wielded in his opinion on Friday could not have been further from what Hill recalled him telling her call those years ago: "He made a comment that I will vividly remember," Hill told the Senate. "He said that if I ever told anyone of his behavior that it would ruin his career."

All these years later, I can still picture it: Hill, a young, black woman, dressed in a teal blue suit, sitting before the committee and somehow answering every question without raising her voice, though I would have understood if she did. And then the camera would pan to the committee members, all old and white and clad in dark suits, insisting they were just asking questions.

It wasn't just the questioning by senators that sought to undermine Hill. The committee didn't call other women who had said that they could back up Hill's testimony about Thomas's behavior. Another woman wanted to testify that she too had been sexually harassed by Thomas, but she was never called before the committee. Nobody told her why. A third woman wanted to testify that she had witnessed a sexualized atmosphere at the EEOC when she worked there, recalling that young black women like Hill were "being inspected and auditioned." She too was not called before the committee. She was not told why. The FBI investigation into what happened at the EEOC when Thomas worked there? That took a whopping three days.

Thomas, no surprise, denied it all, infamously calling the hearings a "high-tech lynching" and deploying what we'd now call DARVO: He denied, he attacked, and he insisted that he was the victim. Then, like now, it worked. He passed the Senate confirmation vote by a slim margin, 52-48, giving him a lifetime appointment to the highest court in our country.

A few years later, in 1994, then-Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson published a book about Thomas and the hearings, called "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas," that explained in great detail the political maneuvering that went into ensuring Thomas made it onto the court, no matter how many women came forward. The critic Margo Jefferson reviewed the book for the New York Times and suggested that what animated Thomas might be the spirit of the only president to ever resign from the office, Richard Nixon. "Compare their lives and careers," Jefferson wrote, "the punitive, harsh childhoods; the slights inflicted by peers and rivals; the resentments that built up and turned into grudges; the political acumen and intellectual cynicism; the drive to win at any cost."

"How much of our public life must play hostage to private grudges?" Jefferson asked. "On the day he was confirmed, the 43-year-old Mr. Thomas told friends that he planned to spend the next 43 years of his life on the Supreme Court because it would take that long to get even."

There are so many moments that, looking back, are what led to this horrifying time in history, when more than 50 percent of the population has lost a basic right to necessary healthcare. But, to me, this is the moment to which I return in my mind, again and again. I was 10 years old, and I still feel as if those hearings telegraphed to an entire generation of women that speaking up would only be punished. If a woman with the résumé and pedigree of Hill—Oklahoma State for undergrad, Yale for law school, a tenured law school professor at the University of Oklahoma before the age of 35, and the first black tenured professor at OU in its history—could be humiliated for having the audacity of speaking out about sexual harassment in her workplace, what chance did the rest of us stand?

More than two decades later, the Senate Judiciary Committee would have a few women on it, all in the Democratic minority, when Christine Blasey Ford was forced to suffer a similar process as she testified that future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were in high school. It turns out, changing a deeply sexist institution into one that takes the accounts of women seriously requires more than just sprinkling in a few women. Like Thomas, Kavanaugh was confirmed. And on Friday, Kavanaugh joined in the majority to strike down the nearly 50-year legal precedent creating a right to an abortion for everyone in the United States.

In their dissent, justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan called out the dangerous path on which the conservative wing of the Supreme Court has sent our country. They wrote: "... no one should be confident that this majority is done with its work. The right Roe and Casey recognized does not stand alone." Tug on one strand hard enough, and the tapestry of rights unravels. Later in the dissent, they warn us again: "... all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid19th century are insecure. Either the mass of the majority’s opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat." They even all but directly call out Thomas, noting "at least one Justice is planning to use the ticket of today’s decision again and again and again."

"Nor does it even help just to take the majority at its word," they wrote. "Assume the majority is sincere in saying, for whatever reason, that it will go so far and no further. Scout’s honor. Still, the future significance of today’s opinion will be decided in the future."

There are so many moments and failures that have led us to this point, as millions of people see a fundamental right to healthcare taken away after having it for nearly five decades. The failure of the Democratic Party to codify abortion rights into federal law. The failure of the Democratic Party to get more liberal justices onto the Supreme Court. The failure of the Democratic Party to recognize and act on just how high the stakes have been and remain and will continue to be when it comes to abortion.

But in my mind, it begins here. It starts with Hill. Hill warned us about Thomas. There is a through line from Thomas's conduct in the EEOC to his ruling abolishing the federal right to an abortion. In the years since that hearing, Hill has gone on to become one of our nation's leading voices on the constellation of gender-based violence that soaks our society. Last month, Hill was asked if the massacre of children and teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and the anticipated end of Roe were connected. "They absolutely are," she said.

"The general level of misogyny that is in our society today ... is manifested in smaller ways as well as the most egregious ways on the occasion of these mass murders," Hill said, per Fortune's Broadsheet newsletter.

Though Thomas might once have worried that his actions would end his career, it seems Jefferson's prediction has been proven true. Now we all must suffer through Thomas's revenge.

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