In the wake of the sexual accusations attempting to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, a previous Supreme Court nominee’s accuser has resurfaced and helped shape the public discourse on this subject. Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation in many ways parallel those of Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez against Kavanaugh. With the media coverage re-upping Hill’s relevance and influence, it’s a good time to look at her story again.
The media is often able to tell any story it wants, especially about events that make conservative figures look bad. So their coverage of Hill forms a revisionist history that paints her examination by the Senate as consisting of clearly corroborated details, a tightly validated timeline, and trustworthy witnesses to back up her accusations. None of that is true.
Yet that’s the portrayal from major outlets, like NPR, which published a story titled, “Anita Hill Says Kavanaugh Accuser Hearing ‘Cannot Be Fair’,” or CNN, who asks, “How Much Has Changed Since Anita Hill,” New York Times’s smug “Anita Hill: How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right,” and Reuters “Commentary: Echoes of Anita Hill in Kavanaugh hearings.”
It’s time to reexamine Hill’s accusations against Thomas. National Review ran a five-part series examining the claims, available here. A close look at history and public record shows a starkly different reality from the one showcased in these recent articles. Thanks to these public records and processes, we can learn the truth, and better inform public discussions and decisions.
Speaking of Smears
Here are the basic details. Hill was interviewed by two FBI agents about Thomas’s interactions with her before she gave committee testimony, and her story so changed that they deemed her not credible because of “comments that were in contradiction with” her previous statements. She claimed that Thomas made crude remarks and statements to her, and repeatedly harassed her trying to get her to date him.
Specifically, Hill’s accusations were that Thomas was graphic and inappropriate: “He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes,” and “He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.”
Hill claimed Thomas asked who in the office put pubic hair on a can of Coke that he was going to drink. She also accused him of discussing the size of his penis and how well he could perform oral sex on women.
Despite these egregious claims, Hill continued to maintain cordial relations with Thomas, even seeking him out, after and during the time period in which she later said he did these things. She followed him from job to job, well after the alleged harassment happened, including when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
She called him on the phone and left messages for him for secretaries to record. She volunteered to drive him to the airport. Hill’s friend and witness, Susan Hoerchner, also repeatedly changed her story. She told the committee she knew that the harassment happened in spring or summer of 1981, because after that she left Washington. Yet at that point Hill hadn’t started working for Thomas at the EEOC where the alleged harassment took place.
Women Stand Up to Defend Both Men
The committee ultimately voted Thomas onto the Supreme Court, where he has served without further accusations of sexual misconduct. Similar to Kavanaugh, numerous female colleagues come to Thomas’s defense. They called him “a man of the highest principle, honesty, integrity and honor in all of his personal and professional actions,” and found Hill’s accusations “ludicrous” and “unbelievable.”
They also said Thomas’s character was “absolutely incapable of the abuses described.” These were not the words of women who felt unsafe working with Thomas, but rather women who trusted him, much like Kavanaugh’s supporters trust him.
Also striking is that Hill defends former president Bill Clinton, who has himself been accused of serious transgressions against women, which suggests political motivations in her accusations rather than a concern for justice for sex crimes. Here she is on that point:
For President Clinton, he’s going to suffer a disadvantage because it is now that these allegations are coming out, during his presidency. But I think what Ms. Steinem also says is we have to look at the totality of the presidency and how has he been on women’s issues generally? Is he our best bet, notwithstanding some behavior that we might dislike? I don’t think that most women have come to the point where we’ve said, ‘Well this is so bad that even if he is better on the bigger issues, we can’t have him as president.’
So Hill held different standards for sexual harassment allegations depending on the political party of the accused. Unevenly applied standards deepen the political divide ripping our country apart. We can’t heal the problems woven deeply through the fabric of our society when people of different political parties are held to different standards like this.
We Can’t Find Justice Without Equality Before the Law
We shouldn’t run our country’s legal processes by feelings and emotional narratives, but by facts and a process meant to determine whether an accusation can be proven. Due process is important because it protects both the accuser and the accused, something these media trials will always fail to do. We need a country where the wrongs of the past are arbitrated through a well-outlined, fair process with steps all sides can follow to produce a just outcome.
Criminal acts within the statute of limitations need to be taken to the proper legal authorities: police and criminal courts. There’s a time and a place to discuss why people don’t report, and why conviction rates are low. The answer for this is transparency and holding our civil servants accountable, not ignoring the process completely.
Criminal justice reform is a timely and needed topic, especially when we’re talking about sexual violence and crimes against the vulnerable. Stepping outside this process to wage media smear campaigns only weakens our constitutional rights, and this hurts everyone. This isn’t about silencing women, but the opposite. This is about letting people speak up and tell their stories in the venue designed to produce justice.
This is where both Kavanaugh’s and Thomas’s confirmation hearings came apart. Alleged wrongs that never went to court, never were reported to the police or school authorities, are decades later coming up when the recollections of all involved are shaped by time and distance from any initial event. In both cases, the point was not to seek truth and justice, but to ensure a political outcome. Doing that has dangerous consequences.