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Sexual Harassment

Clarence Thomas And Anita Hill Hearings

The issue of sexual harassment drew national attention during the 1991 Senate hearings on the confirmation of CLARENCE THOMAS to the U.S. Supreme Court. ANITA FAYE HILL, a professor at the University of Oklahoma Law Center, accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education and the EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION (EEOC) between 1981 and 1983. The public disclosure of the allegations resulted in nationally televised hearings before the SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE.

The hearings, which drew a large national viewing audience, raised questions about Thomas's behavior, Hill's credibility, and the nature of sexual harassment in the workplace. The demeanor of the 12 white male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the questions they asked Hill raised the ire of many women's groups, who saw in the senators' behavior an unwillingness to acknowledge the dynamics of sexual harassment.

Thomas, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, had been nominated by President GEORGE H. W. BUSH to fill the seat vacated by Justice THURGOOD MARSHALL. Thomas's opponents, including many Democrats and interest groups, tried to block his nomination because they did not want Thomas, an outspoken conservative African American, replacing Marshall, an African American and one of the few remaining liberals on the Court. After questioning Thomas at length, the Judiciary Committee deadlocked 7–7 on whether to recommend the nominee to the full Senate and then sent the nomination to the floor without a recommendation. Nevertheless, it appeared that Thomas would win confirmation by a comfortable, though not necessarily large, margin.

Then on October 6, 1991, Anita Hill publicly accused Thomas of sexual harassment. The charges rocked the Senate. Hill had been contacted earlier by Senate staff members, and she told them of her allegations. The Judiciary Committee asked the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) to talk to Hill and Thomas about the allegations. The FBI produced a report that was inconclusive, being largely a matter of "he said, she said." The allegations would probably never have come to public attention except that Hill's statement was leaked to National Public Radio (NPR). Once NPR broke the story, Thomas's confirmation was thrown into doubt. In response, the Judiciary Committee announced that Thomas and Hill would be given a chance to testify before the committee.

The Hill-Thomas hearings took place the weekend of October 11th. Hill testified that after she had refused to date Thomas, he had initiated a number of sexually oriented conversations, some of which alluded to pornographic films. She provided vivid details about these conversations, but her credibility was questioned by Thomas supporters who suggested, among other things, that Hill might have fantasized the conversations. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) interrogated Hill as if she were a criminal suspect and suggested that she might be charged with perjury. Other senators wondered why she had followed Thomas from the EDUCATION DEPARTMENT to the EEOC if he had sexually harassed her. She replied that the harassment seemingly had ended and that she was uncertain about the future of her job at Education.

Thomas forcefully denied all of Hill's allegations and portrayed himself as the victim of a racist attack. According to him, Hill's allegations were "charges that play into racist, bigoted stereotypes." He reminded the committee that historically, when African American men were lynched, they were almost always accused of sexual misconduct, and he characterized the hearings as a "high-tech lynching."

Thomas's impassioned defense proved to be effective. It not only disarmed his Democratic opponents on the committee, who in the opinion of many commentators failed to question Thomas effectively, but it also won him sympathy throughout the country. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken October 28, 1991, found that 58 percent of the respondents believed Thomas: only 24 percent believed Hill.

The committee also heard from witnesses who said that Hill had discussed the harassment with them during the time she worked for Thomas. Thomas's supporters produced several men as character references, one of whom alleged that Hill's statements were a product of romantic fantasy. Several women who would have testified that Thomas exhibited similar behavior with them either declined to testify after seeing the committee's grilling of Hill or were not called by the committee.

Thomas was confirmed two days after the hearings, on a vote of 52–48, the narrowest margin for a Supreme Court justice since 1888.

Thomas's confirmation did not end the controversy. Some commentators characterized the hearings as a perversion of the process and suggested that Hill's charges should have been aired in closed committee hearings. Others criticized Hill as a pawn of liberal and feminist interest groups that sought to derail Thomas's nomination by any means. Some critics also accused Hill of being an active participant in the move to defeat Thomas; they claimed that she was a Democrat who pretended to be a Republican so as to appear politically impartial.

Hill's defenders were outraged by the committee's treatment of her. They described her plight as typical of women who bring sexual harassment claims. Unless the woman has third-party testimony backing up her charges, the "he said, she said" scenario always favors the man. The senators' questioning of Hill's motivations was also evidence of how men fail to understand sexual harassment. Many of the senators saw her as either a liar, a publicity seeker, or an emotionally disturbed woman who fantasized the alleged incidents. In response, T-shirts appeared that stated "I believe Anita Hill." There was also concern that Hill's treatment might discourage women from reporting sexual harassment. The Thomas-Hill hearings were a watershed event in the discussion of sexual harassment.


Morrison, Toni, ed. 1992. Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. New York: Pantheon.

Ragan, Sandra L., et al, eds. 1996. The Lynching of Language: Gender, Politics, and Power in the Hill-Thomas Hearings. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Siegel, Paul, ed. 1996. Outsiders Looking In: A Communication Perspective on the Hill/Thomas Hearings. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.

Smitherman, Geneva, ed. 1995. African American Women Speak Out on Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press.

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