Women, Sex, and Clarence Thomas: What Has Changed (And What Hasn't)

Women can't be trusted when it comes to sex.

That was the message in October 1991, when an all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated a young African-American law professor named Anita Hill about her claim that her former boss Clarence Thomas had made unwelcome sexual comments and advances towards her throughout their professional relationship.

Hill's testimony during Thomas's U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings energized and empowered American women to forge a national dialogue about the ways in which men use sex to maintain power in the workplace. Twenty years later, we can see the legacy of this dialogue in a broader cultural understanding of sexual harassment, stronger laws and policies prohibiting harassment in the workplace, and in women's representation in our government.

But in 1991, Hill was under attack. The hearings became an indictment of her personal and professional life, feeding on and feeding into cultural biases about gender and sex. In her testimony, Hill said that she had feared this. "Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life, but it is very close to [having] to live through the experience that occasioned this meeting," she said. "I was aware... that telling at any point in my career could adversely affect my future career."

Despite evidence showing that Hill had not come forward on her own -- the Committee and the FBI had approached her -- testimony supporting Thomas sought to expose Hill as an attention-seeking liar. In doing so, it relied on a perverse misunderstanding of the nature of harassment and revealed a fundamental distrust of women and sex. Though Thomas himself did not directly accuse Hill of lying, he presented himself as bewildered, devastated, and victimized by Hill and by the confirmation process. Thomas's former assistant testified that "the Anita Hill [she] knew was nobody's victim," implying that smart, strong women are immune to harassment.

The Judiciary Committee was not so subtle. Their interrogation of Hill ranged from insulting to accusatory. Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) made the unsubstantiated claim that, "I really am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill... I've got statements... saying: Watch out for this woman.'' Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) suggested that Hill's accusations had been fabricated by "slick lawyers" bent on destroying Thomas's career. Former Sen. Arlen Specter (then a Republican from Pennsylvania) accused Hill of "flat-out perjury."

Of course, the exact truth of what happened between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas remains elusive -- though like others I have my own beliefs. But today we do have a better grasp on the reality of harassment. We know that women don't always report harassment, not because they're lying about it, but because they often have to weigh their careers with speaking out. We know that harassment is insulting to endure and embarrassing to discuss. And we know that women like Hill are often targets precisely because they are perceived as powerful.

Thankfully, in the law, in our government, and in our culture today there is less tolerance for men who are sexual bullies in the workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1991, enacted shortly after the Thomas hearings, made it easier for victims of harassment to win monetary damages. Wary of lawsuits (and perhaps more enlightened themselves), many employers have implemented sexual harassment trainings in the workplace.

There also have been many more women elected to government since 1991, making it unlikely that we would see the same treatment of women before a Congressional committee. Women's outrage at Hill's treatment during the hearings and the lack of women in the hearing room ushered in the "Year of the Woman" in Congress, in 1992 bringing four new women to the U.S. Senate and 20 new women to the House. Importantly, two women Senators now sit on the Judiciary Committee (though the Committee still lacks racial diversity).

Other attitudes also changed -- including the attitudes of some of Hill's sharpest critics such as Senator Specter. "That proceeding was a real lesson to me," Specter told the New York Times in 2009 (though still from Pennsylvania, Specter has switched to the Democratic Party). "I heard from so many women who saw themselves in [Hill's] place, who felt their veracity was being questioned along with hers."

Though we certainly have made progress in our laws, culture, and government, this is not to say that we have rid ourselves of the anti-woman bias that pervaded the Thomas hearings. Indeed, their most indelible legacy may be something which undermines women's power for generations to come: the jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas himself.