By Lauren Freedman ’20
It was late one summer when rumors began to swirl among Democratic committee staffers about one particular Supreme Court nominee. He had survived 10 days of grueling confirmation hearings centered on his legal and political views. Now he was poised to receive his spot on the highest judiciary court in the United States – that is, until one woman came forward with an explosive accusation. Ready to relay her story to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the woman could never have known how 14 male senators were prepared to go after her with a vengeance, taking shots at her credibility while millions of hungry television viewers watched from their living rooms.
The year was 1991, and Anita Hill was accusing Judge Clarence Thomas of ongoing sexual harassment from the time they had worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Echoes of Anita Hill’s story emerged into the public sphere when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford recently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as it weighed the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Among the committee members Ford faced were three familiar faces who heard Hill’s testimony almost three decades earlier.
In the early 1980s, the same period in which Hill said she experienced the harassment of Thomas, Ford claimed she was pinned down on a bed in a house in Montgomery County, Maryland, by an inebriated Kavanaugh, who laughed with another high school friend as he groped Ford and put his hand over her mouth to stifle her screams for help. The high school students grew up to be respected men and women, who would face each other once more, 36 years later, when Ford decided to come forward to share her harrowing experience. Poised and confident, Ford steadily recounted the events that occurred one fateful suburban night and the lasting effect they had had on her for the past several decades.
Kavanaugh followed Ford’s testimony with his own statements. He appeared visibly angry when questioned about old high school acquaintances as well as references in his high school yearbook pages. At one point, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the hearing “the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.” He slammed Democratic senators for perpetrating what he believes to be a fabrication aimed to keep a Supreme Court spot opened until 2020. Graham apologized to Kavanaugh for what he is going through and insisted this interview must be a sort of hell for him. Ford did not get any such apology – not from Kavanaugh, her accused attacker, or from Graham, who refused to acknowledge the possibility that her account may hold truth. She was disregarded by Graham, just as Anita Hill was by the Senate Judiciary Committee 27 years prior.
The similarities between Hill and Ford and their hearings are remarkable. Both are respected professors, at first reluctant to publicly put their names to their accusations. Both their claims, though given to senators at earlier times, were revealed to the public on what seems to be the eve of confirmation for two Supreme Court nominees.
However, the women do not just share similarities with each other, but with an entire scope of women who have suffered sexual harassment or assault. Neither reported their incidents to the appropriate authorities immediately following the events. The immense relief that Ford felt following her escape out from under Kavanaugh was followed by an immense feeling of shame. She felt at age 15 she could not tell her parents, or anyone for that matter about the attack. Society had ingrained into her teenage mind that reporting her attack was not worth the humiliation it would bring to her or her family. Similarly, when Anita Hill was asked by a senator why she did not cut off contact with her harasser after he was no longer her superior, Hill responded that she was “afraid of retaliation, I was afraid of damage to my professional life.” Both of their responses are in line with statistics collected by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) which indicate only 310 out of every 1000 rapes are reported to the authorities.
However, the complex cases of both Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill have striking differences in part due to their 27-year time gap. In the wake of the recent #MeToo movement, the inappropriate workplace behavior by men, once nervously laughed off by those around them, is costing them their jobs. Allegations of sexual misconduct on Hollywood movie sets all the way to Capitol Hill have forced many prominent men to resign from their positions.
While testifying against the backdrop of this movement may seem to be an asset to Ford’s credibility, 2018 lacks something 1991 politics had: a sense of bipartisanship among political opponents. Clarence Thomas took his seat on the bench of the Supreme Court after only a 52 to 48 vote, but he received votes both for and against him by Democrats and Republicans alike. Republican politicians chose to band together throughout the Kavanaugh hearings, seemingly placing party loyalty above their personal objections to his appointment. If this frightening trend continues, the already fading notion of bipartisan politics may cease to exist altogether in a short matter of time.
In 1991, an ad was released in the New York Times by African American scholars Barbara Ransby, Deborah King and Elsa Barkley Brown. The ad featured the haunting title “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” and listed the names of 1,600 black women who funded the ad as a sign of solidarity with Anita Hill. A similar ad was run in the New York Times following the allegations Ford made. That ad stated “We believe Anita Hill. We also believe Christine Blasey Ford.” It then listed the names of 1,600 supporters of Ford – all of them men.
When men like Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh face no consequences for their actions, history cannot help but repeat itself. Our reality becomes more and more a product of privileged men allowed to dictate the law for the women they appear to treat as objects. It has been 27 years since Thomas was appointed, and now Kavanaugh has been narrowly appointed. What our culture chooses to brush off or take action against has changed dramatically, but it remains our duty to find ways to ensure the highest court in the country reflects this change.
Photo credit: AP/AP from BusinessInsider.com.