History Stories

Few observers expected the issue of whether Clarence Thomas should serve on the U.S. Supreme Court to become a firestorm—and a national referendum on sexual harassment.

Supreme Court Justice nomination hearings are never dull. But few observers expected the issue of whether Clarence Thomas should serve on the highest court of the land to become a firestorm—and a national referendum on sexual harassment.

That all changed on October 11, 1991, when a university professor named Anita Hill took the stand. Her testimony against Thomas is now seen as a watershed moment in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. But at the time, her explosive allegations were doubted, exposing her to public mockery and humiliation.

Who is Clarence Thomas? A justice in the making.
Born in segregated Georgia to a domestic worker and a farmer, Thomas lived in poverty throughout much of his childhood. When a house fire made him homeless, he moved in with his grandparents, who raised him in Savannah.

Thomas studied English literature in college, continuing on to law school at Yale. Throughout his young life, his success in school was often credited to affirmative action—a biased misconception that would come to play a role later in his career.

After practicing law in Missouri, Thomas was an Assistant Attorney General of Missouri, eventually moving into the private sector. During the 1980s, he served in the Reagan administration, becoming the eighth Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In 1989, he was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to a federal judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. After Justice Thurgood Marshall announced he was retiring from the Supreme Court in 1991, Bush nominated Thomas to replace him—and the confirmation process that followed became an epic struggle with an unexpected twist.

Clarence Thomas awaits proceedings during his hearing regarding the alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill. (Credit: Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images)

Clarence Thomas awaits proceedings during his hearing regarding the alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill. (Credit: Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images)

The controversial confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas.
Thomas’ nomination was immediately tinged with controversy— because of his race. Had Bush nominated an African American just to preserve the racial makeup of the bench? Was Thomas, who had been a federal judge for just 16 months and had never argued a case before the Supreme Court, qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court? As those questions raged, concerns about Thomas’ political stances followed. Those who opposed the nomination accused Thomas of being anti-choice and anti-affirmative action.These issues dominated the early days of Thomas’ hearings.

Then, on October 11, 1991, Anita Hill took the stand. Hill’s testimony astonished onlookers. A University of Oklahoma law professor and former assistant of Thomas’ during his tenure in the EEOC, Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

Thomas, she claimed, had made unwanted sexual advances, asking her out and speaking to her about pornography and sexual acts. Hill’s testimony was supported by other women who made similar statements to the committee, never testifying in public.

Anita Hill’s testimony brought sexual harassment to the forefront.
Though Hill’s accusations were not made in a court of law and Thomas was not charged in a criminal case, they were the most prominent sexual harassment accusations to date, and they catapulted the little-known concept into the national consciousness.

But Hill wasn’t the first woman to accuse a colleague of sexual harassment. Since the term was first coined in the 1970s, harassment had been litigated and even recognized by the Supreme Court.

Hill endured hours of questioning by Senators who made it clear they doubted her testimony. “Are you a woman scorned?” asked Senator Howell Heflin during a memorable moment in the confirmation hearing. “Do you have a martyr complex?”

Despite all this Hill believed in her cause. “Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life,” Hill testified. “It would have been more comfortable to have remained silent.”

Demonstrators against US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas rally on the steps of the US Capitol building shortly before a US Senate vote on October 15, 1991. Thomas was confirmed by a 52 to 48 margin in the US Senate vote. (Credit: Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators against US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas rally on the steps of the US Capitol building shortly before a US Senate vote on October 15, 1991. Thomas was confirmed by a 52 to 48 margin in the US Senate vote. (Credit: Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)

How Hill’s testimony affected Thomas.
Though Hill’s accusations were credible and corroborated by other women, they did not affect the outcome of Thomas’ confirmation hearings. When Thomas himself spoke before the committee, he called Hill’s allegations and the tenor of the hearings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” He vigorously denied harassing Hill. As media attention to the hearings swirled, he was confirmed by a 52-48 vote.

Suddenly, the idea of sexual harassment was front-page news—and so was Hill. The repercussions were immediate: She was mocked and parodied in the press and accused of trying to bring down Thomas. Her life was threatened, and angry members of the public barraged the University of Oklahoma, demanding that she lose her job.

“The backlash was as horrific as it was predictable,” says Karla Holloway, a Duke University expert in gender and law and author of Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character. “I do not think this was as much about racism as it was sexism. Those who anointed Thomas were men who would not be corrected.”

Now a household name, Hill was excoriated. She was even the subject of a book that claimed she was a liar and mocked her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” (Its author, David Brock, later apologized and admitted to libeling Hill.)

Anita Hill has changed the conversation around sexual harassment.
Hill’s accusations of harassment changed the way America thought about harassment. Within just five years of her hearing, reports CNN’s Julia Carpenter, the EEOC saw sexual harassment complaints double. Companies began to train employees on sexual harassment.

Women felt increasingly empowered to report the misconduct of high-profile men. Men like Thomas—and, later, President Bill Clinton—were now on notice that their sexual misconduct would no longer go unreported or overlooked. The once obscure concept had now gone mainstream.

Anita Hill speaking at the Texas Conference For Women 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Texas Conference for Women)

Anita Hill speaking at the Texas Conference For Women 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Texas Conference for Women)

#MeToo has brought Anita Hill back into the spotlight.
Today, the #MeToo movement has prompted a reassessment of Hill and her legacy. “Do you believe her now?” wrote Jill Abramson in New York Magazine in early 2018. Since Thomas’ confirmation, she writes, not only have other women accused him of harassment, but the women who had observed his behavior before the hearing, along with witnesses who had seen the inappropriate behavior, were never called to the stand to testify. “It’s time to raise the possibility of impeachment,” she writes. “It’s because of the lies he told, repeatedly and under oath.”

As Hill’s case is reconsidered in light of a national movement to expose and prosecute sexual harassers, she has used her voice to fight harassment. Last year, she announced she would lead the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, a Hollywood group committed to ending harassment in the entertainment industry.

Hill continues to speak out about her own experience—but now, the world seems more willing to listen. “The energy and even anger of this moment says we are ready to end sexual harassment,” she said in a recent speech. “We are ready to take on the deniers and enablers and ready to share our truth.”

For Holloway, recognition of that truth hasn’t come a moment to soon. “She has been so extraordinarily generous and gracious as the public has accomplished its own very necessary evolution in coming to understand her truth and our complicity in that moment,” she says. “I have always wanted to thank Anita Hill.”

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