This week Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, called Anita Hill and left a message on her answering machine inviting her to apologize for testifying during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings.
The call brought back, with surprising immediacy, those 1991 hearings. For those too young to remember, the hearings may be little more than a paragraph in a history text. But it’s hard to overstate their importance.
For women at the time, Professor Hill’s testimony was riveting and unforgettable. The country watched on TV as Hill related her personal story — describing the sexual harassment she said she endured while working for Thomas as a federal government employee — before a Judiciary Committee composed entirely of men. Not a single woman senator. (Thomas denied the allegations.)
The issue of sexual harassment was out of the shadows.
Before Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment was viewed as a problem for victims, predominantly women, to solve on their own. Most women suffered in silence rather than jeopardize their careers by complaining, even though sexual harassment had been defined as a form of sex discrimination that could be illegal more than a decade earlier by the courts and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or EEOC).
When it first appeared that Professor Hill’s allegations might not even be aired, outraged women jammed congressional switchboards with phone calls, and seven women members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Rep. Louise Slaughter and then-Rep. Barbara Boxer (who was elected to the Senate the following year) marched to the Senate to demand a serious and respectful hearing.