Editor’s Note: Judy Lichtman is senior adviser and past president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, which promotes reproductive health and rights and access to quality, affordable health care. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
A Supreme Court nominee with an abysmal record on protecting women’s and civil rights stands poised to be confirmed by the Senate. Women’s and civil society organizations have loudly declared that his confirmation would be detrimental to working people and the economically vulnerable. His record on a woman’s right to abortion and on agency over our bodies threatens to gut Roe v. Wade and eradicate women’s reproductive rights.
Just before the vote, a female professor bravely comes out publicly with damning allegations that the nominee sexually harassed and intimidated her (allegations which the nominee vehemently denies).
Sound familiar? I am not talking about Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, but about then-Judge Clarence Thomas, who was a nominee to our nation’s highest court in 1991.
The woman, we all know, was Anita Hill. And I was there as her story unfolded. Twenty-seven years ago, on Yom Kippur eve, I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in my role as President of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, which became the National Partnership for Women & Families. I was joined by wonderful colleagues, including Professor Patricia King of Georgetown University and Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.
At the time I testified that Judge Clarence Thomas appeared to lack a demonstrated commitment to equal justice. I stated that his record cast grave doubt on his commitment to affirm and support fundamental principles of equal employment opportunity, the constitutional protections against gender discrimination and reproductive freedom. His record had shown an extensive pattern of disregard of principles of fundamental importance to women and their families.
Of course, the parallels between then and now are unmistakable.
Shortly after my testimony, Hill’s story was leaked to the press, and she was asked to testify before the Senate. What happened next continues to be one of the most disgraceful episodes in our country’s modern history.
Hill came before the Senate and was greeted by an all-male panel, led by Republicans who sought to prosecute her, while Democrats, at best, remained neutral fact-finders. This phony trial resulted in a gross imbalance of power and meant that no one defended Hill and no one prosecuted Thomas. What was on trial was not the fitness of Thomas to be the next Supreme Court justice but instead Hill’s moral character and reputation as a woman.
Immediately after the hearing, it was branded as a “he said, she said” moment – with much of the country undecided. But this would not remain so.
Steadily brewing was the angst, anger and ire of women across the country who slowly began to talk with their coworkers, families, spouses and each other. This was the 1991 version of “Me Too.” Women all over the country shared stories realizing that they, too, had been survivors of similar harassment and even worse – assault and violence.
This brewing anger would lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and what we now know as the “Year of the Woman.”
This sentiment led to women across the country turning out to disrupt the misuse of male political power that had marked the Thomas-Hill hearing. For the first time, we witnessed four women being elected to the Senate in the same year, resulting in a paradigm shift.
Today, another woman has been forced to come forward with allegations against a Supreme Court nominee, allegations which the nominee strongly denies. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is courageously speaking out about an extremely traumatic sexual incident. Her accusations are credible and she has corroboration that long pre-dates Kavanaugh’s nomination to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, including reports from a therapist in 2012 and a polygraph test this past summer.
I believe Ford and stand with women all across this country in demanding that the Senate hold a full and fair investigation.
That means ensuring that Ford’s allegations are investigated by experts who have experience in handling the trauma of sexual assault and violence. That also means ensuring that, unlike Hill, we don’t insist on putting Ford on trial for being a survivor of sexual assault. And that means ensuring that critics who obfuscate and dismiss Ford’s charges as outdated antics of his youth do not prevail.
In the era of #MeToo, we have torn down the curtain on male abuse of power and toppled the notion that some people are too big to fail. While the stories of courageous women have been inspiring, we are still grappling with how to create systemic change. The court of public opinion has led in this fight. Now it is time for democracy and government to meet the will of the people.
A fair investigation gives us an opportunity to show women across the country that if they dare to speak out, they are not alone and will be backed by our nation’s institutions. While we failed Anita Hill, we have an opportunity to do better by Christine Blasey Ford. I am hopeful that this time we will get it right.
We must do better. And we will not go back to 1991. Women are watching.