In July 1991, Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court, announced his retirement after 34 years. President George Bush quickly nominated Clarence Thomas, a 43-year-old African American judge known for his conservative beliefs, to fill the seat. Thomas had been chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) during the Reagan administration, and in 1990 Bush had appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals. As the confirmation hearings for Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination got underway, he evaded controversy over his conservative views on issues such as abortion by refusing to state a clear political position. He seemed headed for an easy confirmation until Anita Hill, a former aide, stepped forward and accused him of sexual harassment.
Hill, who had served as an aide to Thomas at the Department of Education and the EEOC during the 1980s, alleged that the Supreme Court nominee had repeatedly made sexually offensive comments to her in an apparent campaign of seduction. Beginning on October 11, 1991, the Senate Judiciary Committee held four days of televised hearings on Hill’s charges. Americans were shocked by both the frankness of Hill’s lurid testimony and the unsympathetic response of the all-male committee, some of whom were openly antagonistic toward Hill. Thomas, meanwhile, denied the charges, and some witnesses called on his behalf cast doubt on Hill’s character and mental stability. On October 15, the Senate narrowly voted to approve Thomas’ confirmation.
Although the hearings left the Senate and the nation deeply divided, the episode served to foster a greater public awareness of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. In taking over the seat of the ultra-liberal Thurgood Marshall, Thomas contributed significantly to the conservative character of the nation’s highest court in the 1990s and after the turn of the century.