In October 1991, 35-year-old law professor Anita Hill testified at the confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and shone a light on workplace on sexual harassment at time when the topic was still taboo.
Speaking in a calm, even tone, Hill detailed graphic accusations of sexual harassment by Judge Thomas, while she was working for him at two government agencies.
She told politicians that Thomas frequently spoke about acts he had seen in pornographic films and on several occasion had graphically described his own sexual prowess.
The accusations were shocking, and nothing like this had ever been openly discussed in the normally buttoned-up hearing rooms of the United States Senate. No surprise, television viewers were riveted.
But what happened after Hill finished her opening statement was even more shocking.
The all-male, all white, Senate Judiciary committee members grilled Hill about her accusations, forcing her to repeat again and again the most disturbing and embarrassing parts of her testimony. Several Republicans openly tried to discredit her reliability and accused her of “erotomania”, a mental illness characterized by excessive sexual desire.
Even US President Joe Biden, who was then the Senator for Delaware and the Chairman of the committee asked Hill to describe the infamous Coke can incident again.
Biden has since publicly apologized to Hill for not protecting her from the inappropriate questions of his fellow senators.
Judge Thomas Testifies
Judge Thomas, who was then 43 years old, categorically denied the accusations, and accused the committee of facilitating what he viewed as a racist smear campaign.
In the end the full Senate voted 52 to 48 to confirm Judge Thomas who remains a Supreme Court Justice today.
But the impact of Hill’s televised testimony reverberated dramatically across the nation, with lasting consequences that endure to this day.
The hearings so outraged women that a women’s movement was ignited in the US, resulting in the election of a record number of women in 1992.
However, if you watched the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in 2018 it would appear that not enough has changed in the intervening years.
Kavanaugh’s televised hearings captured the public’s imagination with over 20 million people tuning in to hear testimony from Professor Christine Blasey Ford who told the committee that she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh as a teen.
The all-male panel of Republican senators didn’t attack her overtly instead they hired an outside prosecutor to try to pick apart Blasey Ford’s credibility live on national television.
They refused to subpoena a key witness to the assault or launch the FBI investigation that Ford asked for. And after Kavanaugh angrily refuted the accusations he was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice.
While there were some big differences between these two cases, it would seem that despite the steps forward taken thanks to Anita Hill and the #METOO movement there is still a long way to go when it comes to the handling of sexual misconduct allegations.
For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at Curiouscast.ca.