Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Remembering Anita on the Hill

Nineteen years ago, Clarence Thomas became an Associate Justice of the United States Surpreme Court. It was not without a challenge, as a woman who once worked for him came forward, to claim that Thomas had sexually harassed her while under his employ. He denied the charges, but for weeks the nation was fixed upon a man whose reputation was in the dock, and the woman from obscurity who dared to accuse him. And now, nineteen years later, the wife of the Justice is found to have left a phone message for the woman, asking that she apologize for the incident, on the premise that in doing so, the wife was offering “an olive branch.”

Uh, sure. Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor wonders if Anita Hill truly owes Virginia Thomas an apology.

Ms. Thomas’s very overt advocacy on behalf of conservative and tea party organizations and causes – including harsh criticism of President Obama and Democratic lawmakers – has prompted questions about whether this is unseemly for the spouse of a US Supreme Court justice. For someone in her unique position, where is the line between free speech and association and the need to avoid the appearance of politics in the federal judiciary?

But before we go on, let's talk about me.

In 1991, I was going through a divorce, so I had a lot on my plate at the time. I managed to find enough parties every other weekend (when I didn't have Paul) to distract me from reality. At some point, someone would mention the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the Anita Hill testimony. But the conversation quickly took on a life of its own, as some woman would invariably start talking about her own experience being propositioned by some man for whom she worked. I would hear one story after another as the months, and the hearings, went on. And the opinion polls had a tale of their own. In the beginning, most people believed Judge Thomas. By the time it was over, more and more people started to believe Ms Hill. Was it really just the testimony that persuaded them?

Indeed, people have their own view, not only of the opposing stories, but of how the press handled it. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate is quick to label Mrs Thomas' overture as inappropriate, if not bizarre, and maintains that Judge Thomas has carried his bitterness too far, and for too long, especially since he emerged victorious. On the other hand, the otherwise socially enlightened press was quick to mock Thomas' stories of racial bigotry at his expense while growing up. Had he been an ideological liberal, it is certain that pundits like Lithwick would have made him a cause célèbre, even to this day. And the present trend towards activist wives of men in high office knows no political bounds. (Isn't that right, Hillary?)

But the real story here, is not the "he said, she said" that we would associate with this episode. It is, rather, how a nation's perception of sexual tensions in the workplace was changed forever. The Gospel tells us “You have heard that it was said, you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Nearly two decades after the national conversation, the days of Don Draper as the Don Juan in the flannel suit are long past, in a society that needs all the redemption it can get.

1 comment:

Gail F said...

I remember believing Anita Hill at the time, because she didn't come forward on her own. Someone, a journalist, I think, "outed" her after she said she would tell her story once someone else did -- or something like that. The details are fuzzy. Anyway, at the time I found this persuasive. Now I am 46 and that doesn't exactly sound like the most trustworthy sort of witness, it could just as well be someone who wouldn't back down because it would be admitting that she had made it up in the first place. But you're right, it was THE story of the day for all sorts of unspoken reasons. I don't think anyone would bat an eye today.