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Opinion The lessons of Anita Hill: Bad days bring mighty change

Hanna Barczyk

It’s almost as if the United States is engaged in a poisonous reboot of Groundhog Day, except the alarm clock song on endless loop isn’t I Got You Babe; it’s Marvin Gaye’s lament, What’s Going On. Those of us who are old enough will remember the fall of 27 years ago, when an all-white, all-male Senate judiciary committee grilled law professor Anita Hill over her allegations of sexual harassment against her former boss, Clarence Thomas: “Are you a scorned woman?” one Republican senator asked. Another accused her, baselessly, of “flat-out perjury.”

Was she a fantasist? A civil-rights zealot? A nutty feminist who just couldn’t handle a little office banter about big breasts, oral sex and pubic hairs on Coke cans? Maybe she stood to gain from these allegations – which she had not intended to take public, but were leaked to the media. Maybe she believed that taking on the entire Republican establishment, the White House and the right-wing media would result in untold riches and fame, and a mansion on the beach in Malibu.

Those were the allegations, anyway. The smear campaign against Ms. Hill began before her testimony in October, 1991, and continued long after. She was, in the words of an infamous right-wing hit job, “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Some of the flung mud stuck. As Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson write in their 1993 book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, when Prof. Hill flew home after testifying before the Senate committee, “One woman wagged a finger at Hill and yelled, ‘Shame! Shame!’; a man shouted, ‘Little wench!’ and a clutch of men in business suits let out a stream of hisses.”

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Of course, Justice Thomas was confirmed in 1991 with a 52-48 vote, and has been a reliably conservative presence on the U.S. Supreme Court ever since. The parallels with the current battle over the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh are abundantly clear. Today, there is also a White House desperate for a conservative vote on the bench, a bitter partisan battle, a country divided over whether to believe the allegations of women about sexual misconduct in the nominee’s past. There are more ominous echoes in Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson’s book, too: There were witnesses who could have corroborated Prof. Hill’s story who were not called to testify; shoddy interviews by the FBI; a nominee who was not forthcoming about the extent of his ideological views.

I often wonder if the public imagination is a bit like childbirth – a terribly painful thing happens, but then we forget the misery in order to do it all over again. Prof. Hill came forward reluctantly, torn between the consequences she would face and “a duty to report.” Twenty-seven years later, Christine Blasey Ford felt compelled to share her teenage memories of assault because she felt it was “her civic duty,” while questioning “whether I would just be jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway and that I would just be personally annihilated.”

Even in her worst moments, surely Prof. Blasey Ford could not have predicted that the train would wear Donald Trump’s face. The U.S. President, clearly looking to demonstrate his Olympic skills in barrel-scraping, mocked Prof. Ford’s experience for the benefit of his supporters at a Mississippi rally. They hoo-hahed in response, because nothing says thigh-slapper like a woman who’s spent three decades trying to recover from trauma.

Orrin Hatch, one of the Republican senators who attacked Prof. Hill’s credibility in 1991 is somehow still on the same judiciary committee, a privileged perch from which he is now attacking Prof. Blasey Ford, saying, “This woman, whoever she is, is mixed up.” Later, Mr. Hatch shooed away sexual-assault survivors who were attempting to speak with him, as one might shoo wayward toddlers or housemaids who’d come to ask for an extra dime in their pay packet.

The optics are not good. They are, in fact, really bad. Even if you accept that this is all theatre staged for the voters who will turn out in the November midterm elections, it seems likely that there will be a fair few rotten tomatoes thrown from the cheap seats.

Because that, too, is the lessons of Anita Hill. She might have paid an untold personal cost, but a lot of women were enraged on her behalf – and the political class knew it. Sexual-harassment claims at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – where, ironically, Ms. Hill and Mr. Thomas had worked together – rose by 50 per cent in the first six months of 1992. As Ms. Mayer and Ms. Abramson write, senators were so alarmed at the angry calls they were receiving from female voters that they “rushed to sign a code of conduct for their office that prohibited harassment … They also passed a flurry of bills aimed at helping women.”

Even more striking was the historic wave of political success for female candidates in the midterm elections held a year after Prof. Hill testified. It came to be called “The Year of the Woman.” Twenty-four women were elected to the House of Representatives, and four to the Senate.

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That wave included Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, who felt compelled to run after seeing Justice Thomas appointed to the Supreme Court. “I was apoplectic about it,” she told journalist Rebecca Traister. Watching the confirmation hearings and listening to the words of “tired, old white men on this committee became the wind under the wings of my candidacy.”

Will a similar storm bring a new group of women to office in the U.S. midterm elections? Will the outrage in some quarters over Justice Kavanaugh’s likely confirmation turn into action, or will it dissipate so that we have to witness a similar spectacle all over again in twenty years?

Female candidates are certainly doing their duty and running in record numbers in the midterms. Now they just need supporters to do their duty, and vote.

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