20th anniversary of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Clarence Thomas SCOTUS nomination

Nina Totenberg, who broke the story of Anita Hill’s allegations about Thomas, has an interesting retrospective of the Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings.  I was just starting my second year in graduate school in 1991.  Sexual trauma was big in the news of 1991:  that summer had already featured the ugly smearing of a high-profile rape victim in the trial (and acquittal) of William Kennedy Smith.  The Thomas hearings had us all riveted–on the one hand, it was remarkable to see a young, black woman’s testimony about sexual harassment entered into the public record.  On the other, the all-too-predictable reactions of the U.S. Senators who treated Anita Hill with such smarmy condescention or prurient personal attacks (Snarlin’ Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch in particular) were almost too much to bear. 

Senator Ted Kennedy was of course notably silent through these hearings, because he had been a witness called at his nephew’s rape trial the previous summer. (That’s what Snarlin’ Arlen meant to imply when he said towards the end of the clip above, “Mr. Chairman I object to that. I object to that vociferously. . . If Senator Kennedy has anything to say, let him participate in this hearing.”)

Anita Hill looks so young and without defenses or allies in these old clips. She was unimaginably brave to endure this in public. Deborah Gray White suggests the powerful historical currents that Hill swam against 20 years ago in Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008):

Their particular history, the black woman’s history, was especially oppressive. [One author] alluded to its prohibitive nature when she delicately noted the “almost unmentionable history of the burdens of those soul-trying times when, to bring profit to the slave trade and to satisfy the base desires of the stronger hand, the Negro woman was the subject of compulsory immorality.” Sylvia Francoz Williams was even more direct. So painful was the wound of the black woman’s history, she argued, that “her detractors rely upon her not voluntarily reopening it, even to probe it for its cure.” Perceptively, Williams maintained that the black woman’s “sensitiveness on this point has been the greatest shield to the originators of the scandal,” 5.

I recall being in a graduate seminar that week in which the professor asked, “what do you think will be the historical legacy of the Thomas hearings?  Is this a turning point?”  Some students said that yes, the Thomas hearings would change a lot, and one third-year graduate student informed us that “I’m taking notes for future lectures right now.”  Perhaps unimaginatively, I answered “no,” mostly because for me, the Thomas hearings were about men closing ranks to trash a young woman’s testimony.  Secondarily, they revealed a continuing and disturbing white fascination with black bodies and black sexuality. I didn’t think the Thomas hearings would make the problem of sexual harassment go away, or even that there would even be a consensus that it was a problem at all.  Unfortunately, I think I was right.  In the past twenty years or so we have witnessed a fierce backlash against feminist efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to define rape and sexual harassment.  The 1990s and the 2000s have featured high-profile and successful efforts by men to redefine rape as consensual sex.

Perhaps one small thing has changed for the better, at least in the field of American women’s history.  Since the Thomas hearings, African American feminist scholars have developed a small but powerful bibliography on the rape and sexual trauma that was central to the process of enslavement in the Americas.  Before 1991, Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South(1985) was the only monograph on enslaved women.  But the ferment of the 1990s produced a growing number of young scholars who would write about the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality in slavery and in the post-emancipation United States in articles and books that put black women’s experiences at their centers. African American and feminist historians are now developing a historiography and a language with which to confront a history that is characterized by rape and other forms of sexual and family trauma. I wonder if there would have been the beginnings of this kind of history without Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee twenty years ago.

Here is a list of selected titles in my field that address sexuality in African American women’s history:

  • Mia Bay, “In Search of Sally Hemings in the Post-DNA Era,” Reviews in American History, 34:4 (2006), 407-426.
  • Daina Berry, “Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe”:  Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (2007)
  • Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006)
  • Kathleen Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs : Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996)
  • Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom:  Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004)
  • Kirsten Fischer, Suspect Relations:  Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (2002)
  • Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:  An American Controversy (1998) 
  • Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women:  Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004)
  • Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth:  A Life, A Symbol (1996)
  • Jennifer Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans (2009)
  • Wendy Anne Warren, “‘The Cause of her Grief’:  The Rape of a Slave in Early New England,” Journal of American History 93:4 (2007) 1031-1049.

15 thoughts on “20th anniversary of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Clarence Thomas SCOTUS nomination

  1. You go awfully easy on Sen. Spector. He was way way way beyond smarmy and pruriently personal, but I guess you can’t put what we all feel about him in a public blog!


  2. I teach the Thomas-Hill hearings in my “African American Women’s History” class. I show long clips of the actual hearings–the students sit unbelieving at the spectacle. And I have them read essays from Toni Morrison, ed., _Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power_. Thanks to the wonderful recent work Historiann cites the students have already read about the history of black women’s sexuality in the class so they are well prepared to engage with the hearings. And most have no knowledge of what happened before this. When we have our “could this happen today” discussion the class is split pretty evenly. As am I.


  3. jgolden: you are right. But I think that Specter’s and Hatch’s behavior was predictable. They were going to bat for the SC nomination by a President in their party.

    My real disappointment was always with the Democrats–Kennedy did nothing. Joe Biden was a joke. It was clear that these men had no way of imagining a world in which the testimony of a young, black woman *about her own life* could be taken seriously.

    I love the collection that Widgeon mentions. I think I lost my copy about a decade ago–it’s worth re-reading this week, I think.


  4. thanks for the post Historiann. Its an anniversary I had forgotten. Thanks for the reminder. Just thinking about it I remember seeing my friends’ “I believe Anita Hill” buttons.

    It is stunning to me that there was only one monograph about enslaved women before 1991. When I teach historiography to our undergraduates I talk about the 1960s and 1970s as a golden age of social history. But clearly that age is now, because of the books you listed in your post. Or better still we live in a golden age of gender history and this age will continue. After all, the grad school cohorts of the 1990s still have long and productive careers ahead of them.


  5. I remember the hearing only too well. Although, I am a male, I felt dirty, slimy and very uncomfortable at the lynching of the victim. We learned to expect nothing better from both parties. The Republicans are a lynch mob employed by the 1%. The Democrats roll over and play dead; correction: they are dead.

    Is there public domain access to any of the papers listed above? (for non-historian)


  6. Twenty years? I’m getting old.

    One odd legacy of the Hill-Thomas hearings was that there were men who were educated. The president of my then institution had a conversation with his daughter, who said “Of course this happens to all of us.” He immediately started a review of existing institutional policies. And I think elsewhere similar things happened. I think many institutions reviewed and probably strengthened sexual harassment policies after this.

    A few years later, I taught a seminar using the Toni Morrison collection, which is excellent, not least because it has Kimberle Crenshaw’s essay on intersectional thinking. I think the African-American feminist analysis that came out of that was incredibly theoretically productive.

    And for those who wonder, just remember that Ginny Thomas had the nerve to telephone Anita Hill a year ago asking for her apology.


  7. Matt: your comment prompts me to issue a slight correction. There were two books published on enslaved Caribbean women slightly before this time:

    Hilary Beckles, Natural Rebels: a social history of enslaved black women in Barbados (1989)

    Barbara Bush, Slave Women in Caribbean Society, 1650-1838 (1990)

    I should have qualified my statement to suggest that White’s book is the only book on enslaved women on the American mainland.

    koshem bos: You can probably preview a lot of the books listed above on Google books, and the two articles are probably in journals that most university libraries subscribe to. (You could also type in the titles and see what the Google will bring. . . )

    Susan: word on that weird telephone message. I blogged about that at the time. Something I’ve learned through my reading on bullying is that aggressors often remember the experience as though they were the victims of their own victims. They come to believe that they were the aggrieved party, for some reason. I’m sure it’s a protective psychological mechanism. It’s difficult to see oneself as a bully.


  8. Something I’ve learned through my reading on bullying is that aggressors often remember the experience as though they were the victims of their own victims. They come to believe that they were the aggrieved party, for some reason. I’m sure it’s a protective psychological mechanism. It’s difficult to see oneself as a bully.

    Indeed. And something I’ve learned through my experience of my own birth family is that you can replace “bully” with “psychological abuser” and “bullying” with “psychological abuse”, and what you write remains exactly correct in all respects.


  9. I remember that whole horrible appointment of a harasser to the Supreme Court (the Supreme Court!) as if it happened yesterday. The phalanx of jerks who made sure they didn’t get it. Calm, clear-eyed Anita Hill testifying about what had happened. The unimaginable courage to subject herself to that garbage on the Hill, and for what? To get justice for herself? No. To get a Hollywood movie deal? No. Merely to help the country avoid an unqualified reprobate on the Court.

    It reminds me of that line of Bob Dylan’s: “Remember when you’re out there, trying to heal the sick, that you must always first forgive them.”

    She, I gather, has moved on. I haven’t done as well. I’m still furious.


  10. In 1991, I was living in a trailer at the Jersey shore, and wasn’t reading newspapers or watching TV. That sounds odd, but it made sense at the time. Three years later, I was in grad school, and the fissures opened up by the hearing had become all-defining for everyone around me, and thus for me too. (I was lucky, then, to have taken a class with Deborah Gray White, who was gentler with me than she might have been). Looking back, even though I missed the CNN live coverage and the immediate coverage, no other event was more important to me – intellectually, emotionally, or politically – during this formative moment of my post-youth. And the event’s unfolding continues to haunt me.


  11. I feel about the hearings today just as I did at at time, physically ill. I have no doubt that more administrators, faculty, and students understand harassment and take it seriously now than was the case back then but what institutions have learned is litigation avoidance. All the same crimes are being committed by all the usual suspects and all the same good ol’ boys (of any gender) are just as disinterested as ever. That is my experience at my big state university. I guess I’ll take litigation avoidance over nothing, but in my observation the only predators who pay a price are the low ranking ones. I don’t need to look back to the Thomas hearings to feel sick.

    Anita Hill was so brave to speak out. Women who come forward today are brave as well.


  12. “what institutions have learned is litigation avoidance. All the same crimes are being committed by all the usual suspects and all the same good ol’ boys (of any gender) are just as disinterested as ever.

    Word. truffula. My uni had me complete a “sexual harassment training module” online about 2 years ago. I never read the “manual” and just clicked the best answers I could guess. It took me about 10 minutes. Hey, I’m “certified” now that I completed sexual harassment training! What a joke exercise clearly aimed at indemnifying the institution.

    quixote, I’m sure that Thomas isn’t the first harasser on the SCOTUS. We just don’t know about all of the toady white men with similar histories. To that extent, Thomas was right that he was subjected to differential treatment. In his view, his sexual behavior at work and after hours should have been just as protected as that of white SCOTUS nominees.

    Lance: living in a trailer on the Jersey Shore without media access sounds pretty good right now, so long as we’re past hurricaine season.


  13. Regarding Susan’s comment about educated men: Shortly after the conclusion of the hearings, I received a fund-raising letter from the dean of the law school from which I graduated. Several pages long, the letter provided brief biographies of six new faculty hires, all white men. Instead of sending money, I wrote the dean to suggest that we just saw an extreme example of what happens when white male law students are educated exclusively by white men. The dean wrote back that my argument was incoherent. Sigh.


  14. Heh. I once wrote to my u/g alma mater with a point like that. (Ironically it’s a women’s college, yet it has consistently failed to create a more diverse faculty.) I got back a letter like “but but but EXCELLENCE.” Right–you only hire men because of their excellence, and you can’t hire women because of their lack of excellence. Gotcha.


  15. Coming a little late to your discussion…quite interested on your take and all the comments. My perspective was a little different…I worked at OCR when Clarence was Asst Sec’y and Anita Hill was his aide. Didn’t like either of them, avoided them whenever possible; but, as to who was telling the truth, this note: Hill was Clarence’s protege…she followed him to at least two jobs. There was *no reason* and *no excuse* for her to say what she said if this was not her truth and if she could’ve found a way to get out of testifying. Are you kiddin’ me? Who wants to do things like get a lawyer, get grilled by a Senate committee, and be hung out to dry publicly? She went up a lot in my estimation for doing the gutsy thing she did. As to Clarence…we’ve seen what kind of Justice he turned out to be (I’m not a fan).


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