The revelation on Sunday that psychologist Christine Blasey Ford is the woman who accuses Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault has opened a new phase in a confirmation process that had been drawing to a close.
Ford’s allegations of assault at a high-school party in the 1980s were relayed in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and began circulating publicly last week. The idea that she might speak to the Senate Judiciary Committee — and Monday evening’s news that she and Kavanaugh are scheduled to do so on Sept. 24 — inevitably called to mind a moment from more than 25 years ago. That was when another woman accused a Supreme Court nominee of sexual misconduct.
On Oct. 11, 1991, when she testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Anita Hill became the face of what was arguably the biggest sexual harassment case ever seen in the United States up to that time.
Hill, then a 35-year-old University of Oklahoma law professor and commercial law expert, told the committee that 43-year-old Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had ambushed her with unsolicited dirty talk when they had worked together at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the early 1980s.
As TIME pointed out in summarizing her eight hours of “virtually uninterrupted” testimony about his conduct at work, the details of her allegations were shocking in their specificity:
Hill said that, because they worked together at the time, she feared that if she spoke up or resisted, she might lose her job. Hill also told the committee that Thomas had once told her that he knew that “if [she] ever told anyone of his behavior, that it would ruin his career.”
It didn’t, however.
Thomas denied everything and at one point characterized the hearing as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” which he said played “to the worst stereotypes we have about black men in this country.” Describing the experience of having reporters comb through his private life as “Kafkaesque,” he implored the Senators to vote one way or the other in order to end the hearing. When they did vote, the Senate confirmed Thomas 52-48, on Oct. 15. He now sits on the Supreme Court.
“Her word against his,” TIME concluded. “Neither Hill nor Thomas was able to bring decisive evidence before the committee last week to support their widely differing versions of their dealings in the past. Thus the evidence of character counts all the more heavily. But even that appeared to weigh equally on both sides.”
Even though Hill’s testimony failed to keep Thomas from being confirmed, it did change the national discourse about sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere.
The indelible image of Hill remaining “cool and unflappable” as the 14 white male Senators on the committee questioned her sparked a stronger reaction outside that hearing room. In the world of the Senate, “it is hard to empathize with someone worried enough about her career that she would overlook offensive conduct until it became literally a federal matter. Senators don’t interact with women as colleagues — they have only two — and most of the other women they come in contact with are subservient,” TIME pointed out in an article that noted how the men on the committee were “slow to grasp” how much the issue of sexual harassment mattered. Many of those watching the televised hearings had no such trouble.
Hill’s testimony is thus credited with everything from inspiring more women to run for public office to helping to change the legal possibilities for assault and domestic-violence survivors. In the years that followed, the Supreme Court would further clarify the definitions of and laws on sexual harassment, for example by ruling same-sex harassment at work is illegal. And last year, former Vice President Joe Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, said that he owed Hill an apology for the way she was treated during the hearings.
And yet, in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s clearer than ever that issues surrounding sexual assault and harassment are far from settled.
That’s part of the reason why, in the years since her testimony made her a household name, Hill has remained one of the most prominent public faces of the fight against those problems. Speaking to TIME in 2016 for the release of the HBO movie inspired by her story, Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University, said she didn’t mind continuing to talk about what she went through back then, because she knew it could provide “new inspiration” for victims.
“I do think we don’t do necessarily a great job about teaching people a history about how they got to where they are, but that’s different than taking things for granted. I think they’ve got real strong ideas about how they want to be treated in the workplace. They may not realize the obstacles that will come their way exactly, but they have strong feelings about fairness and equity,” she said. “And that’s the legacy that I want them to remember. They don’t necessarily need to know my name, but to take that away.”
Read the full 1991 issue about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, here in the TIME Vault: Sex, Lies & Politics
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