Yesterday the Washington Post published the strangest story of the week: “Virginia Thomas Seeks Apology From Anita Hill.”
“Good morning Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas,” said the message left this month, according to a transcript provided by ABC News. “I just want to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometimes and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”
What Anita Hill did to Ginni Thomas’s husband was accuse him of sexual harassment at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. I was in 12th grade, and when Hill testified before Congress, a television was brought into Government class so that we could watch. In the days before the 24-hour news cycle, Supreme Court confirmation hearings were never broadcast live. But Anita Hill was doing something historic, something revolutionary, and the networks knew it. Looking back, it was a remarkable, almost subversive, act on my teacher’s part, especially given the discussions of pubic hairs and “Long Dong Silver” videos. It is probably not a coincidence that the teacher who showed us the hearings is a woman.
There was no doubt in my mind that Anita Hill was telling the truth. As a teenage girl, I knew how gut-wrenching it is to speak the truth about being bullied, about creepy behavior, about people taking advantage. I believed her because I knew that nobody would line herself up for that kind of scrutiny and abuse unless she was either telling the truth or straight-up insane. Anita Hill was obviously not insane, and she was no liar. The (white) men on the Senate Judiciary Committee may not have known this, but I knew it when I was sixteen years old.
Less than a year after watching Anita Hill testify, I got my first job. Right away, a man who worked there started bringing Victoria’s Secret catalogues to my desk so he could “show ya my favorites!”, offered to take me to a popular DC strip club, and opined that “you’d look good naked.” He was in his late thirties. I was 17. I immediately flashed back to Anita Hill in her turquoise suit, telling her story calmly, and with dignity. I walked into the boss’s office, feeling distinctly nauseous, and told her what had happened. She listened, her face impassive, then told me to go back to my desk. As I got up to leave she said, in a level voice,”Becky, I’m sorry. Sometimes this happens.” The man in question never spoke to me again, although I worked two summers at that office. God bless that boss. If only there were more like her.
“Sometimes this happens” was pretty fucking prescient. I am 35 now. I have worked in more than one “hostile workplace.” I have been groped, propositioned, had my looks and clothes commented on, and been asked intrusive questions about my sex life and my body. So yeah…sometimes this happens. Every working woman I know—every single one—has at least one story like this. My grandmother, a widowed, working mom in the 1950s, put up with it. My mother put up with it. My aunts put up with it. My friends and mentors put up with it.
Did Anita Hill tell the truth? Fuck yeah. She told our truth. The truth was gross, it was sleazy, it was deeply undignified for all involved, and it spotlighted the nastiness of workplace harassment on the national stage in a way no one could ignore. It was devastating for a man seeking the highest judicial office in the land and it damn near ruined the life of the woman who accused him. But the evidence that she was telling the truth is about as compelling as you can ask for.
Ruth Marcus, of the Washington Post, who covered the confirmation hearings that I watched as a 16 year old wrote:
Does anyone besides the two of them know the full truth about what happened between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill when he was a Reagan administration official and she was a young lawyer on his staff? Perhaps not. But as I wrote when Clarence Thomas released his angry autobiography, the overwhelming weight of the evidence is on Hill’s side.
She complained to friends at the time about his behavior, telling one, Susan Hoerchner, that Thomas, then the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had “repeatedly asked her out . . . but wouldn’t seem to take ‘no’ for an answer.” Another former EEOC employee, Angela Wright, described how Thomas pressured her to date him, showed up uninvited at her apartment and asked her breast size.
Some of the strangest behavior that Hill cited — Thomas asking about a pubic hair on his Coke can, and his taste for extreme pornography — resonated with episodes from Thomas’s past. A college classmate, James Millet, recalled “an almost identical episode,” Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher report in their biography, “Supreme Discomfort.”
Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson found two others who recalled a pubic hair-Coke can comment at the EEOC.
Hill told other people about the harassment. Thomas harassed other women in similar ways. There’s as much contemporary, corroborative evidence on Hill’s side, and a distinct pattern of behavior on Thomas’s side as you could possibly need to draw a conclusion.
It was clear in that hearing room in 1991 that Anita Hill was taking a huge risk by telling the truth…even to us high school students. The right wing launched a smear attack on Professor Hill, led by journalist David Brock’s articles in the American Spectator, and a 1993 book, The Real Anita Hill. In 2002, Brock admitted that much of what he’d written about Hill had been “inexcusable, disgusting” and politically motivated. In his memoir, Blinded by the Right, Brock described it as “propaganda” written solely to discredit her:
As is always the case with sexual harassment, there were weak spots in the story told by Hill and her witnesses, and I portrayed them as intentional lies. But I still had a problem that caused me to overreach. If Thomas was completely innocent, Anita Hill would have had to be insane to go on national television and tell a lie under oath. Grasping for an explanation of the inexplicable, doing everything I could to ruin Hill’s credibility, I took a scattershot approach, dumping virtually every derogatory—and often contradictory—allegation I had collected on Hill from the Thomas camp into the mix. Hill was an ambitious incompetent passed over by Thomas for a promotion. She was “kooky.” She was a man-hater. She had a “perverse desire for male attention.” She had a “love-hate” complex with Thomas. She made “bizarre” sexual comments to students and coworkers. She sprinkled pubic hairs in her law students’ term papers. She was, in my words, “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
…Every source I relied on either thought Thomas walked on water or had a virulent animus toward Hill. Already conditioned to think the best of Thomas and the worst of Hill, I did nothing to test these sources or question their motives. That almost all of the “kooky” quotes were voiced from behind a shield of anonymity gave me no pause. My incompetence was compounded by an uninformed bias, by the grip of a partisan tunnel vision that was by now such a part of my nature that it distorted my work, disabling me from finding the truth, without my even knowing it.
So now Ginni Thomas wants an apology? Give me a fucking break. Oh, I’m sure that being married to the perpetrator of the most famous sexual harassment in American history has got to sting. But that was 19 years ago, and they were not married at the time, so Ginni certainly knew what she was getting into when she said “I do.” Why demand an apology now?
Ruth Marcus writes:
Clarence Thomas has taken the road of angry denial and, unless she’s about to let her marriage unravel over it, the path of least resistance may be for Ginni to join him there.
Why seek satisfaction from Hill now? One explanation might be that Ginni Thomas has recently found herself in the media cross-hairs over her role as head of a group dedicated to exposing the leftist “tyranny” of President Obama. Perhaps that has rekindled her unresolved feelings about Hill. Was it a coincidence that she made the call on the morning the New York Times ran a front-page story headlined, “Activism by Thomas’ Wife Could Raise Judicial Issues“?
Perhaps. Maybe Ginni Thomas doesn’t like being the object of public scrutiny, or having her personal life discussed in the media. It’s the height of irony, though, that she’d come down on Anita Hill, who suffered her own, infinitely more painful, trial by fire in the media…because she was sexually harassed by Ginni Thomas’s husband.
If I were a better, more charitable person, I might feel sorry for Ginni Thomas. But I am not and I don’t. I think she and Clarence Thomas are a good example of what Shakespeare called “the marriage of true minds.” She sounds as sad, self-loathing and aggressively creepy as her husband, a man most of us—including my teenage self—knew was a harasser as soon as we heard Anita Hill’s testimony.