When you think of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, maybe you think of his notorious quietness during court proceedings. But more than 20 years ago, Thomas’ name was synonymous with scandal and sexual harassment.
In 1991, Anita Hill was Thomas’ assistant. Hill maintained that Thomas often made inappropriate sexual advances and remarks toward her, the most memorable of which involved his asking, “Who has put a pubic hair on my Coke?” while examining a soft drink can. Thomas dismissed Hill’s claims as the delusions of a “spurned woman,” telling 60 Minutes that she wasn’t “the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed.”
Hill agreed to a polygraph test, which supported her claims. Meanwhile, Thomas declined the test. Hill had a handful of witnesses to corroborate her allegations but their testimony was never heard during hearings. Thomas would famously go on to call the scandal a racially motivated “high-tech lynching” by the white liberal elite who did not want to see a successful black conservative on the bench.
Hill was treated horribly after the allegations. Both during and after the hearings, she was smeared a delusional “spurned woman.” In his memoir My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas calls Hill a “touchy” and “combative left-winger.” He suggests that her allegations were set up by pro-choice Democrats who feared his appointment to the Supreme Court might threaten Roe v. Wade.
Hill describes the questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, then a panel of white men, as particularly “hurtful” and maintains there is a racial undertone to her treatment and does not feel a white accuser would have faced similar criticisms.
More recently, Thomas’ Wife, Tea Party activist Virginia Thomas, left Hill a biting late-night voicemail asking that she apologize for her 1991 testimony. Predictably, Hill declined.
While Thomas bounced back from the controversy relatively unsatched, Hill has not. Her name is synonymous with scandal. As the Washington Post points out, “For many, Hill embodies the fight against sexual harassment and gender discrimination, even as she triggers vitriol from others who dismiss her testimony as a partisan attack against Thomas.”
While Thomas has enjoyed a career in the national spotlight, Hill has more or less stayed out of the political limelight, working as a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. For better or worse, it seems Hill has embraced her new identity, much of her scholarly work and lecturing focuses around sexual harassment. She feels her public allegations marked a kind of turning point on how we deal with gender in the workplace.
Responding to Thomas’ smears on her character in a New York Times op-ed, Hill writes, “Fortunately, we have made progress since 1991. Today, when employees complain of abuse in the workplace, investigators and judges are more likely to examine all the evidence and less likely to simply accept as true the word of those in power. But that could change. Our legal system will suffer if a sitting justice’s vitriolic pursuit of personal vindication discourages others from standing up for their rights.”