In 1991 when Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas faced sexual harassment claims, the public mantra toward men in the Senate and elsewhere was, “They just don’t get it.”
Now, in the #MeToo era, men get it and have lost their jobs for it.
Such is the new atmosphere that confronts current Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he faces accusations that echo eerily of the 1991 Anita Hill episode. That context will no doubt influence how the current drama develops, just as will today’s intense partisanship and Republicans’ grip on the Senate.
Twenty-seven years ago, Thomas, the choice of Republican President George H.W. Bush, ended up being confirmed 52-48 in the closest Supreme Court confirmation vote in more than a century, and with the help of 11 Democrats. It is impossible to imagine that kind of bipartisanship for a high court nominee today.
In 1991 as now, both Thomas and Kavanaugh served as judges on a prominent Washington-based US appeals court. And as the Senate Judiciary Committee was vetting the nominees, some rumors of past sexual misbehavior were in the air. But during both September confirmation hearings, the public remained unaware of what was simmering.
The women alleging misconduct, coincidentally both professors, were reluctant to come forward with their names and full stories. Hill eventually publicly accused Thomas of harassing her with descriptions of pornographic films and other materials when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s; as emerged on Sunday, Christine Blasey Ford more seriously has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were high school students in the early 1980s.
Both of their stories burst forth in news reports as crucial Senate votes approached. For both, it also appeared that Senate Judiciary Committee members blew it by not addressing the claims earlier. Both Thomas and Kavanaugh categorically denied the charges.
Making headlines in 1991 as much as Hill’s sensational harassment charges was the assertion from women’s rights advocates that senators failed to realize the magnitude of harassment women endure in the workplace.
The episode became a cultural watershed that helped lead to the “Year of the Woman” in electoral politics. A record number of women won seats in Congress, and among them, former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, now the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Feinstein, however, has been criticized for not moving faster on a letter passed on to her from Ford, who alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both teens in suburban Maryland. Feinstein, who said last week that she passed the letter on to the FBI, said Ford had wanted the information in it to remain confidential.
The Washington Post obtained an interview with Ford, now a professor at Palo Alto University, and on Sunday published her account that at a party in a Montgomery County house, a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her on a bed, groped her and tried to pull off her clothing. She told the Post that when she attempted to scream, he put his hand over her mouth. She eventually broke away, locked herself in a bathroom, and then fled.
The White House has repeated Kavanaugh’s denial, first issued last week when the accusations (then with Ford unnamed) first became public, which declared, “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”
The differences now
The timing and seriousness of the alleged Thomas and Kavanaugh incidents differ. Hill and Thomas were adults, and Hill never alleged that Thomas physically assaulted her.
But also distinct today is #MeToo – as well as unprecedented partisanship.
The Senate Judiciary Committee does not have to look very far for #MeToo fallout. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota who was a member of the committee, announced his resignation last December under pressure after accusations that he groped and kissed women against their will.
Graver allegations of sexual misconduct, assault and even rape have forced the resignations of entertainment, media, and other public figures, beginning perhaps most notably last year with Harvey Weinstein.
But partisanship could counteract that phenomenon. Republicans have been banding together at every turn of the already tumultuous Kavanaugh nomination. GOP senators brushed off Democratic complaints about the speed of the hearings and the withholding of documents from the nominee’s more than five years in the George W. Bush administration.
For the past 12 years, Kavanaugh has been a judge on the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said Sunday that he found the timing of the allegations, before a scheduled Thursday committee vote on Kavanaugh, “disturbing.”
“It raises a lot of questions about Democrats’ tactics and motives to bring this to the rest of the committee’s attention only now rather than during these many steps along the way,” Grassley said.
Feinstein separately issued a statement on Sunday supporting Ford and urging the FBI to investigate her claims before Senate action on the nomination of Kavanaugh, who would succeed retired centrist conservative Anthony Kennedy.
South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement that the committee could receive testimony from Ford.
“If the committee is to hear from Ms. Ford it should be done immediately so the process can continue as scheduled,” Graham, said.
While it is difficult to predict how this Kavanaugh controversy will develop, the scars of the Thomas-Hill battle run deep. Thomas and his closest supporters remain bitter about the accusations. In 2010, nearly 20 years after Hill testified in graphic detail against Thomas, the justice’s wife, Virginia Thomas, left Hill a telephone message asking her to apologize.
Hill, who in 1991 was a University of Oklahoma law professor and now teaches at Brandeis University, has remained a vocal women’s rights advocate and opponent of harassment. She said in a statement on Friday when accusations against Kavanaugh (with Ford still unnamed) first emerged, “Given the seriousness of these allegations, the government needs to find a fair and neutral way for complaints to be investigated.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas confirmation, suggested that he might have acted quicker and more thoroughly on Hill’s accusations, told Teen Vogue late last year, “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology.”