Thanks to an odd voicemail from Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, sexual harassment allegations made against the justice nearly 20 years ago are back in the spotlight. For those too young to remember watching the story unfold long before text messages, Facebook and Twitter, here’s the story in a nutshell. In October 1991 as the Senate was set to confirm Thomas, who would become only the second African American to serve on the court, one of his former senate aides, Anita Hill, came forward with allegations of sexual harassment.
I remember watching much of the hearings, which aired over three days on network TV. The image of the infamous pubic hair on the coke can, Hill’s somber expression and Thomas’ “high-class lynching” comments are forever etched in my mind. I remember believing Hill, finding Thomas’ “lynching” comments ironic and wondering why Hill waited so long to make her claims. I remember colleagues, family members and college students asking out loud why Thomas would have to, or “want to” harass Hill since, in their opinion, “she wasn’t even attractive” anyway. Those conversations and Thomas’ eventual confirmation sent strong messages to a young woman just entering the workforce.
The first message I got loud and clear – only women who look a certain way get sexually harassed by their superiors. The next – it’s better to keep quiet about harassment because nothing’s going to be done about it anyway and it will have a negative impact on your life and career. And the fact that back in 1991 only 24% of Americans believed Hill, sent the final and loudest message – no one is going to believe you.
Of course those messages were wrong. Harassment is first and foremost about power, and sexual harassment can and does occur regardless of a person’s appearance, sexual orientation or race. It can and does occur in environments and with individuals who have a need to assert their authority in an inappropriate and demeaning manner. And while Hill’s accusations were lost in the noise of politics and race, the truth is, her speaking out about what happened gave voice to women across the country who previously had none.
As for people not believing when harassment is reported – some people will never believe. I imagine that’s at least part of the reason behind Virginia Thomas’ bizarre voicemail to Hill asking for an apology. I have a little message of my own for Mrs. Thomas – people who haven’t done anything wrong have nothing to apologize for.
Check out Virginia Thomas’ voicemail to Ms. Hill here, and footage of the 1991 Thomas hearings here.
Where were you when the hearings were taking place in 1991? What did you think of them then and has your view changed? Share your thoughts in the comment section.