Excerpted from Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence by Anita Hill, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Anita Hill.
In addition to limiting the findings of fact, another form of denial was happening during the Thomas confirmation hearing. Like the snapshot of Judges Frey and Williams and executives’ thinking about sexual harassment in 1981, statements from Thomas’s Senate confirmation hearing sheds light on how the depth of politicians’ denial of the problem of sexual harassment put the integrity of the Supreme Court at risk. In 1991, flawed thinking about whether gender‑based violence even mattered was evident in politicians’ comments. And attitudes from decades past held sway. In the days prior to the hearing, Senator Arlen Specter, a former prosecutor, declared that he had done his duty to find the facts when he looked Judge Thomas in the eye and Thomas denied the harassment. It wasn’t Specter’s cursory investigation alone that troubled me. His dismissal of my experience as unimportant because I didn’t claim that Thomas touched me stood out as particularly noxious. Specter was in effect saying that sexual assault was the only behavior that called for judicial disqualification, no matter that the law prohibiting sexual harassment includes verbal, emotional, and physical harassment. In essence, Specter was saying that a Supreme Court justice is exempt from accountability for some legal violations. But in retrospect, his assertion that Thomas’s behavior wasn’t “too bad” was nothing new. Except for Spottswood Robinson’s reasoning, Frey’s conclusion that persistent physical and verbal harassment was bad enough to violate Title VII might still be the law.
And outside of the courtrooms, victims and survivors have heard their experiences discounted throughout their lives. Statements like “You’re making too much of this,” “You’re overreacting,” “That’s nothing to complain about,” “Why are you the only one complaining?” and their equivalents are ubiquitous and intended to silence and shame victims. The low bar that Specter set for qualifying Thomas to sit on the Court was an insult to survivors as well as to the Court itself. But Specter’s posturing is best understood as political theater—more showmanship than substance—with little connection to providing a process for victims to raise complaints about sexual harassment or maintaining public trust in the nation’s highest court.
On October 11, 1991, at 11:31 a.m., I sat alone at a long table in room 325 of the Russell Senate Office Building and began my statement in Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing. I spent the first 50 minutes of my testimony that day chronicling Thomas’s discussions of sex and pornography in the workplace. At 12:15, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Joe Biden, asked, “Can you tell the committee what was the most embarrassing of all the incidents that you have alleged?”
I told him that what was most embarrassing was Thomas’s discussion of pornography involving “women with large breasts and engaged in a variety of sex with different people, or animals.” But in truth, I had no real idea how to determine what was the most embarrassing of the crude and obscene comments I had to put up with. Nor did I fully realize how my answer would be used against me.
Within an hour of giving my answer to Biden, Specter, the Kansas‑born senator from Pennsylvania, took his turn questioning me. He started by saying, “Professor Hill, … [y]ou testified this morning, in response to Senator Biden, that the most embarrassing question involved—this is not too bad—women’s large breasts.” He misstated both Biden’s question and my response. “That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you,” he continued, disparagingly belittling me for being upset that Thomas wanted to discuss pornography in the office.
It wasn’t just the mention of women’s breasts that made me uncomfortable, but rather Thomas’s vivid descriptions of the women’s sexual acts in pornography videos. But it didn’t matter. Specter had made his point, signaling his empathy—or himpathy—for Thomas. He said “breasts” was a word “we” use all the time. But who was Specter’s “we”? Who were the “we” that talked about women’s large breasts in the workplace all the time? By repeating the phrase but omitting the pornographic context, Specter had achieved his goal of minimizing “Thomas’s talk about [sex] in the workplace, arguing they were commonly used words and ‘not so bad,’” as the columnist Winnie Brandfield‑Harvey wrote in The Daily Princetonian. Specter reduced Thomas’s offense to being merely descriptive. At the same time, the senator evoked the “prude” trope frequently hurled at women who resist their work colleagues’ attempts to engage them in sexual banter. The following day, after having testified for seven hours the day before, I was back in my hotel away from the Russell Senate Office Building when Specter seized upon my absence to accuse me of “flat‑ out perjury” and demolish my credibility in front of the press.
Other than our participation in the confirmation hearing, Specter and I had, by fate, three things in common: We were both born and raised in farming communities, me in Oklahoma, him in the neighboring state of Kansas. We went to the same law school, Yale. And he had spent his first year of college at the University of Oklahoma, where I taught during the 1980s and 1990s. The OU connection led to a chance encounter with Specter in 1997, years after the Thomas hearing. We were both at the Will Rogers World Airport, getting ready to board the same plane from Oklahoma City en route to Houston.
Specter recalled the encounter in his book Passion for Truth: From Finding JFK’s Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton. “In October 1997, in the Oklahoma City airport, [Specter’s wife] Joan’s luggage cart became entangled with another woman’s purse strap as we were preparing to board a flight to Houston. Untangling the bags, I looked up and saw Anita Hill,” he wrote. “Quite surprised, I said, ‘Hello, Professor Hill.’ Hill looked at me and said, ‘Senator, Senator,’ either not remembering my name, which I doubt, or not wanting to utter it.”
I was gobsmacked to see him. Before the plane took off, we chatted casually. He mentioned something about exploring a gender-equity project that “we could work together on.” I interpreted it as a shiny political bauble dangled in front of me, perhaps his version of an olive branch. I knew it wasn’t genuine. He told me to give his office a call to set up an appointment. When the plane took off, I felt as though I were being held captive at twenty‑five thousand feet midair between Oklahoma City and Houston.
I told the Washington Post reporter who got wind of the encounter that my conversation was sort of chitchat. Upon reflection, I’d call it bizarre. At first, I was shocked, and I thought, “Am I mistaken, or aren’t you the person who accused me of flat‑out perjury?” I realized then that to him the hearing was “just politics.” For me it was about my life. I never made the call. My passion for advancing gender equality was tempered by my memory of his using my words as ammunition against me. I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to say that all was forgotten or that I had called his office looking for the chance to work with him. He had done nothing to earn my trust.
Seventeen years after the Thomas hearing, Senator Specter had an exchange with a member of the audience at a Hudson Union Society event. “Senator, you’ve told us today about many of your learning experiences,” said the audience member. “When you look back, in your questioning of Anita Hill, do you come back with any learning experiences?” It was clear Specter was caught off guard, because his answer did not reflect the customary certainty of a prosecutor or a politician. “Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get a question about Anita Hill,” he said. (As I watched the tape, it occurred to me that every week he got to shape my story to suit his ambitions, because that is what happens when he controlled the facts.) “What I learned was a very sensitive subject is involved on the subject of sexual harassment. People heard me questioning Professor Hill and felt that they were being challenged.” He added, returning to his 1991 self, “I believe that I asked the questions in a very professional, low‑key way.” A member of the audience let out an unrestrained harrumph, to which Specter shrugged and glibly retorted, “You may disagree with me. That’s America.”
Specter had not learned that many survivors keep in touch with their harassers, their assailants, and even their rapists. We remain civil because we know that the powerful ones often hold our future in their hands and can be vindictive if we don’t. Regaining his polemical posture, misstating some of the facts, and omitting others, he went on to outline what he saw as the weaknesses in my testimony. “Telephone records show that she had contact with Thomas” after leaving Washington, including “inviting Thomas to speak at Oral Roberts University” law school and driving Thomas to the airport after his talk, he said. Yes, I contacted Thomas for a reference, and there was a little back‑and‑forth before I realized that I couldn’t trust him to give me a good reference. But the invitation to Thomas to speak came from my dean at Oral Roberts, who was a Thomas fan, not me. Relieved when the whole visit was over, I rushed at the chance to get him on a plane to wherever he was heading. The year was 1984. Thomas was no longer a factor in my life. “Bye, Felicia.”
“Not that bad” reflects the attitude that survivors often internalize; that our abusers’ behaviors “were not the worst thing that ever happened to us” serves as a coping mechanism that is problematic. In her anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, the writer, public intellectual, and cultural critic Roxane Gay writes with painful elo‑ quence about how for a long time she minimized the gang rape she survived as a teenager. And the heartrending stories in her book from other women who experienced gender‑based violence include scores who remained friendly or intimate with harassers and abusers. Not That Bad poignantly reminds us of the way we deny our pain to keep living. Convincing herself that her experience was not as bad as others’ was Gay’s way of managing her trauma “instead of allowing the magnitude of it to destroy” her. But as Gay points out, this defense mechanism comes at a cost. In her case, as with countless other victims, it numbed her to the pain of her other bad experiences, as well as the trauma others suffered. “The surface of my empathy became callous,” she writes.
Looking back at how the Senate exchange went, I wonder, was Specter gaslighting me and the public, or was he mansplaining? I’ve concluded that he was doing both. If gaslighting was his intent, he was manipulating me (and the public) into questioning the reality and my perception of my own experiences. Given his condescending tone, Spec‑ ter was also mansplaining—trying to convince us all that he knows better than me how a woman experiences sexual harassment. Mansplaining was the technique, and gaslighting was the goal. Both are forms of denial employed to discount claims of abuse, and they deserve to be called out because they prevent women from being heard and believed when they testify about abuse. Both tactics foster self‑doubt, coaxing victims into thinking that coming forward is pointless, that no one will care.
I chuckle when I think about that experience in these modern terms. But even 30 years later, I remember Specter’s tittering tone, his smirk, and his pronouncement that my experience and others like it were “not too bad.” The senator questioned both the importance of what I went through and my veracity. Many of his colleagues contributed to the wholesale dismissal of the idea of sexual harassment; at the hearing, the Wyoming senator Alan Simpson described my account as “sexual harassment crap.” Specter’s and Simpson’s disdain resonated with women painfully because it echoed messages they had heard throughout their lives. And when senators express their contempt for the very idea that sexual harassment is a serious concern, women around the country get the message that the judiciary committee does not care about sexual harassment.
[Senator] Specter’s words were aimed at persuading me to doubt my significance. His strategy was to convince the American public that the stories survivors seek to share are of no importance.
How do three simple words, “not that bad,” become so powerful? They gain steam when they are absorbed in all of our social systems, permeating survivors’ minds. The hold that those three little words have comes from hearing them repeated multiple times over the course of a lifetime. The exact language may change, as do the circumstances, but the message that your hurt is of no consequence, so back off, remains the same. Schools deny and neglect gender violence, undermining survivors’ confidence and secure identity even as small children. The same attitude exists in the workplace, which can lead survivors to feel self‑doubt. Individual denial breeds institutional denial, and survivors pay the price. Specter’s words were aimed at persuading me to doubt my significance. His strategy was to convince other potential witnesses and the American public that the stories survivors seek to share and the people who want to hear them are of no importance. Specter’s belittle‑ ment of my pain had one clear beneficiary, Clarence Thomas. To abusers, harassers, and rapists, “not so bad” is an absolution and, in Thomas’s case, an assurance that the Senate confirmation process would protect him. To survivors, these words are like a dagger.
When individuals deny reality, they turn to tropes or stories others are likely to believe even when the facts don’t match their situation. Thomas’s “high‑tech lynching” metaphor, for example, invoked our country’s dark racial history. His supporters seemed oblivious to the fact that in reality the history didn’t fit his circumstances. He was not being wrongly accused by powerful forces. Like most accusers of powerful men, I had no political connections that I had enlisted to threaten his appointments. His protectors included the president, White House and Senate staffers, and the FBI. And no member of the committee challenged Thomas’s characterization of the hearing. Four months later, the insincerity of Thomas’s portrayal of himself as a victim of racism was made even clearer. Thomas used his first written opinion as a Supreme Court justice to deny a handcuffed and shackled Black inmate, Keith Hudson, the right to be protected from being beaten by prison guards. In his Hudson v. McMillian dissent, Thomas argued that the Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment didn’t forbid the pounding—swollen mouth, cracked dental plate, and loosened teeth—leveled against the subdued prisoner as a prison supervisor looked on, warning guards only against “having too much fun.” Hudson’s experience with the criminal justice system reflected the well‑known history of abuse of Black Americans from slavery to this day. The symbolism of the shackles and cuffs and the suggestion that violence was permitted in the name of “fun” cried out for a reference to our violent, racist past. Thomas, who just months before during his confirmation hearing had evoked the specter of racial violence, offered not even a mention that race might have played a role in how Hudson was treated.
Institutional denial, as shown by the refusal to acknowledge the truth about harassment in the Senate and the courts, was dangerously evident in 1991. In the 15 years since Redbook magazine published a groundbreaking survey on women’s experiences with harassment in the workplace, data had emerged establishing the regularity of harassment in various fields— including the judiciary and the courts. The state task force surveys of women professionals conducted in the 1980s documented the extent of harassment by judges, legal clients, and other participants in the judicial system. Senate Judiciary Committee members would have been completely negligent to ignore that data—especially when considering a high‑profile case of harassment before them. But some members stated that they were completely unaware of the problem of sexual harassment. This is how institutional denial works: individuals, representatives of an institution (in this case the Senate) whose job it is to know, claim ignorance on behalf of the institution.
Structural denial relies on rules and systems to mask the truth. To shape the narrative coming out of the Thomas hearing, the Judiciary Committee relied on Senate procedures to deny the public a chance to hear corroborating witnesses and experts with experience in how harassment works in real life. Instead, the committee chose to have the four women’s statements about experiencing or witnessing similar treatment by Thomas included in the written record, which only a fraction of the public would ever see. As late as 2016, people were surprised to hear that there were four independently corroborating witnesses ready to testify but who were never called. More recently, the committee chair, Biden, used this systemic failing as a shield, attributing any failure on his part to conduct a fair and open hearing to the committee rules. “I did everything in my power to do what I thought was within the rules,” Biden said in 2019. But he didn’t explain whether the rules were fair or acknowledge that the “rules” he relied on impeded getting all the facts.
The 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee ducked its responsibility to the public by reverting to theories spun out of nothing that were repeated by committee members as explanations for sexual harassment. One baseless conjecture was that my testimony was part of a political conspiracy to derail Thomas’s nomination. Another was that I was suf‑ fering from erotomania (a delusional belief that Thomas was in love with me) and had imagined the behavior. What was at stake was our commitment to basic fairness and safety in our workplaces and respect for all victims of sexual harassment. In the public eye, women accusers were cast as spurned prigs with vendettas, incompetent dupes manipulated by others, martyrs for some political cause, or gold diggers seeking attention. Pick one or two or all of the above. What was also at stake was our belief in the integrity of the court and the processes by which judges are selected. And many of us wondered if the power to deny would hold sway, causing another shameful public debacle. The answer came 27 years later.
Believing is out now; find it at an indepenent bookstore near you.