Episode 1 – The Testimony

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Cindi: Hey, we’re going to be talking a lot about sexual misconduct and violence in this series. Please take care while you’re listening.

Anita Hill: my name is Anita F. Hill

Woman news host: Hill told National Public Radio that Thomas pressured her to go out with him while she worked for him in the early 1980s. And when she refused, she says, he talked about scenes from pornographic movies

Anita Hill: I felt I had a duty to report.

Sen. Howell Heflin: Do you have a martyr complex?

Anita Hill: I have no personal vendetta against Clarence Thomas.

Sen. Howell Heflin: Are you a scorned woman?

Anita Hill: it would have been more comfortable to remain silent.

Sen. Simpson: I would think that these things, what you describe, are so repugnant, so ugly, so obscene that you would never have talked to him again.

Sen. Specter: This is not too bad, women’s large breasts. That’s a word we use all the time.

Anita Hill: But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth.

Woman Host 2: Both Judge Thomas and Professor Hill are black, and that community has a special interest in the outcome of this confrontation.

Speaker 2: Judge Thomas said that if this came out, it would ruin his career,

Anita Hill: I have nothing to gain here. I’ve been threatened and I have not gained anything except knowing that I came forward and did what I felt that I had an obligation to do, and that was to tell the truth.

Cindi: This is Because of Anita. A four-part series about Anita Hill and the legacy of her testimony.

Cindi: I’m Cindi Leive, I’m a journalist and an editor.

Salamishah: I’m Salamishah Tillet, and I’m a scholar and activist.

Cindi: 30 years ago this month, both of us were glued to our TVs watching Anita Hill testifying about now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Salamishah: Today, we’ve been brought together by her testimony. And the lasting impact it has had on both of our lives, and how we see the world.

Cindi: When I first saw Anita Hill. This is what I knew about her. I knew she was accomplished. I knew she was 35 years old. That she was a law professor from Oklahoma, educated at Yale. I was in my early twenties, a white woman from Virginia, working in magazines – really different from Anita Hill in a lot of ways. But there was something about her that was deeply familiar to me. Her air of professionalism, her shoulder-padded suits, almost a kind of working woman’s armor. Anita Hill reminded me of my mom. My mom had been a biochemist, working in a man’s field.  And I knew she’d had to put up with a lot.

Salamishah: And I was 16 at the time, so I was in school that day. But when I came home and saw Anita Hill, in her iconic teal suit, with her hand up testifying, before that all-white Senate committee, she made a really deep impression on me. I was a black girl in a predominantly white private high school. So in many ways when I look back at that moment, I think I identified with her because she seemed so vulnerable but also empowered.

Salamishah: In this series we’re going to talk about how those hearings changed us and how they changed the people around us.

Cindi: We’re looking at things we didn’t know 30 years ago. We’ll talk to people who decided to take action and run for office, like former senator  Carol Moseley Braun.  We’ll look at what’s changed and what hasn’t with guests like Tarana Burke, who founded the Me Too movement.

And we’ll have a conversation with  Professor Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was called to testify in a 2018 confirmation hearing that looked very familiar.

Salamishah: But before we do that, we want to take you back to 1991.

President George H. W. Bush: I am very pleased to announce that I will nominate Judge Clarence Thomas to serve as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Cindi: That’s President George Bush on July 1, 1991. He’s announcing his nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Thomas had grown up in Pin Point, Georgia, and had become a staunch conservative. He hoped to become the court’s second Black justice, filling the seat vacated by the first, the legendary Civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall.

Salamishah: That fall, after a first round of hearings, the vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee was split – 7 for Thomas. 7 against.

The full Senate was scheduled to vote on the nomination. But two days before that vote,  this happened…

Newscaster: Tonight, there’s a new focus: sexual harassment. 

Cindi: Anita Hill had written a statement that detailed some of the ways Thomas had harassed her.

And newscasters rushed to share what they knew.

[cont. from above] A law professor at the University of Oklahoma is making that allegation. Anita Hill says she worked for Thomas at the U.S. Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Cindi: She had faxed her statement to then-Senator Joe Biden, who was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee

[cont from above] She says Thomas never physically touched her, but sometimes described his sexual desire for her in graphic detail.

Cindi: When she sent that fax, she asked that her name not be made public.

Salamishah: Then the press got hold of at least parts of her statement.

Host: The sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas is our lead story tonight. They came from University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill. President Bush said he continued to stand by his nominee. 

Salamishah: The very few women in Congress demanded that the vote on Thomas’s nomination be delayed.

Rosa DeLauro: The American people deserve more than a dismissal of Professor Hill’s charges. 

Cindi: Representative Rosa DeLauro speaking in the House.

Rosa DeLauro:  They deserve to know the truth. Mr. Speaker, let’s take the time to uncover the truth. 

Salamishah: On the evening of October 8, Anita Hill got a call at her house in Oklahoma, from Senator Biden. He told her there would be a second hearing. It would be public. And she’d be subpoenaed to testify.

Cindi: Anita Hill had less than seventy-two hours to get to Washington, DC, organize a legal team, and prepare to testify in front of millions of viewers.

Cindi: On Friday, October 11, 1991, Clarence Thomas’ second confirmation hearing began. Senator Biden gaveled in the meeting.

Biden: [gavel bang] the hearing will come to order. We are here today to hold open hearings on Professor Anita Hill’s allegations 

Salamishah: Clarence Thomas was given the choice to speak first or second. He chose to go first.

Clarence Thomas: I have not said or done the things that Anita Hill has alleged. This is not American. This is Kafka-esque.

Cindi: Professor Hill watched on TV from her hotel room.

Clarence Thomas: I am a victim of this process. My name has been harmed. My integrity has been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body, or this country can do, to give me my good name back. Nothing. 

Salamishah: After Thomas read his statement, he left. And Anita Hill arrived.

Cindi: She entered this packed hearing room. Facing her sat the 14 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, eight Democrats, six Republicans, all white. All men.

Anita Hill: My name is Anita F. Hill and I’m a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma. I was born on a farm in Okmulgee County, Oklahoma, in 1956. I am the youngest of 13 children. I had my early education in Okmulgee County, my father, Albert Hill is a farmer in that area. My mother’s name is Irma Hill.

Cindi: Like a lot of people. I think I remember exactly where I was when I was watching the hearings. I was pretty freshly out of college and I had gone down to Washington, D.C. to throw a bridal shower. And I remember sitting on my dad and step mom’s bed cross legged and just being transfixed by the TV.

Anita Hill: I graduated from the university with academic honors and proceeded to the Yale Law School, where I received my JD degree in 1980.

Salamishah: I remember that moment.  I really remember Anita Hill going through great lengths to talk about her own academic pedigree. After Yale, she ended up in DC and that’s when she was introduced to Clarence Thomas. And then Thomas asked her if she’d like to be his legal assistant at the Department of Education.

But it was the way that she talked about her own family history that really stood out to me. How hard her parents had worked. And how they’d passed that work ethic onto her. It felt like she was reminding us that no amount of hard work or good behavior could protect a  woman from sexual harassment.

Anita Hill: After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next, and telling the world about it are the two most difficult things, uh experiences of my life. It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration and sleepless number – great number of sleepless nights, that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone but my close friends. 

Cindi:  She was sitting alone at a table. Her legal team was behind her. And behind them were rows of observers, reporters and members of congressional staff.

Anita Hill: I declined the invitation to go out socially with him However, to my regret in the following few weeks, he continued to ask me out on several occasions. He pressed me to justify my reasons for saying no to him. These incidents took place in his office or mine, they were in the form of private conversations which not would not have been overheard by anyone else. My working relationship became even more strained, when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex. 

Salamishah: She told the committee that the conversations were very vivid.

Anita Hill: [cont from above] He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.

Cindi: Hill told the committee that Thomas eventually stopped harassing her. He told her he was in a relationship. She later said she thought the amusement he got out of his behavior must have died. When Thomas asked Hill to come with him to a new job at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the EEOC, she agreed.  She cared about the work, and she needed a job. But after a few months, Thomas began bothering her again.

Anita Hill: One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table at which we were working. Went over to his desk to get the coke. Looked at the can and asked who has put pubic hair on my Coke? On other occasions, he referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal, and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women. With oral sex. 

Salamishah: So Hill went looking for another job. And she found one, as a professor of law at a school in Oklahoma.

On her last day at the EEOC, however, she felt pressured by Thomas to have a going-away dinner with him.

Anita Hill: We talked about the work I had done both at education and at the EEOC. Finally, he made a comment that I will vividly remember. He said that if I ever told anyone of his behavior that it would ruin his career.

Cindi: Professor Hill knew at the time that she could have reported Thomas. She understood the laws around civil rights violations and sexual harassment better than most. But Thomas was literally the head of the EEOC, the agency that addresses harassment complaints in the US.

Anita Hill: I may have used poor judgment, perhaps I should have taken angry or even militant steps both when I was in the agency or after I left it. But I must confess to the world that the course that I took seemed the better as well as the easier approach. 

Cindi: She wanted to move on. To put her experiences with Clarence Thomas behind her.

She told the Committee that, over the years, they were in touch a few times: for a letter of recommendation and other professional things. But, for the most part, she assumed he’d stay in her past. And he did, until he was nominated to the Supreme Court.

Anita Hill: I have no personal vendetta against Clarence Thomas. It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.

Cindi: The hearing was relentless. Over six and a half more hours,  the committee asked Hill to describe in graphic detail the sexual harassment she had already laid out in her opening statement.

Biden: Can you tell me what incidents occurred – of the ones you’ve described to us – occurred in his office?

Anita Hill: Well, I recall specifically that the incident about the Coke can occurred in his office at the EEOC.

Biden: And what was that incident again?

Anita Hill: The incident with regard to the coke can that’s spelled out in my statement.

Biden: Would you describe it once again for me, please.

Anita Hill: The [sighs], um, incident involved his going to his desk, getting up from a work table, going to his desk, looking at this can and saying ‘who put pubic hair on my Coke?’

Salamishah: And the questions kept coming.

Biden: At EEOC, in his office? What was the content of what he said?

Anita Hill: This was a reference to an individual who um h-had a very large penis and he used the name that he had been referred to and the pornographic material um

Biden: Do you recall what it was?

Anita Hill: Yes, I do. Um the name that was referred to was Long Dong Silver.

Cindi:  Over the course of the day, Senator Biden kept reminding the committee that this was a fact finding hearing. It wasn’t a trial, but honestly it felt like a trial and not a trial for Clarence Thomas. It felt like Anita Hill was on trial. The senators kept asking about her motives, like she’d committed a crime.

Heflin: Do you have a martyr complex? 

Cindi: Senator Howell Heflin, a Democrat of Alabama.

Sen. Howell Heflin: I’ve got to determine what your motivation might be. Are you a scorned woman? Are you a zealot, civil rights believer that progress will be turned back if Clarence Thomas goes on the court?

Cindi: Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, was outright dismissive.

Sen. Specter: You testified this morning in response to Senator Biden that the most embarrassing question involved – this is not too bad – women’s large breasts. That’s a word we use all the time. 

Salamishah: When he said that, he even had a little smile on his face.

[cont from above] That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you 

Anita Hill: No, the most embarrassing aspect was his description of the acts of these individuals, these women, uh that the the acts that those particular people would engage in. 

Cindi:  And the senators kept harping on why Anita Hill chose to go with Clarence Thomas from one job to another.

Sen. Simpson: If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?

Anita Hill: That’s a very good question and I’m sure that I cannot answer that to your satisfaction. That is one of the things that I have tried to do today. I have suggested that I was afraid of retaliation. I was afraid of damage to my professional life. And I believe you that you have to understand that this response and that and that’s one of the things that I have come to understand about harassment, that this response, this kind of response is not atypical. And I can’t explain. It takes it takes an expert in psychology to explain how that can happen. But it can happen because it happened to me.

Cindi: Late in the evening, the questioning finally ended.

Anita Hill: I would just like to take this opportunity to thank the committee for its time, its questions, and its effort that it put into this investigation on my behalf. Thank you.

Cindi: After she finished speaking, Anita Hill left the building.

Salamishah: And then because he wanted to, Clarence Thomas came back, to respond to Hill’s testimony.

Clarence Thomas: I deny each and every single allegation against me today. As a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high tech lynching. 

Salamishah: It was those words, “high tech lynching” that stood out for many of us. And the entire statement was even more jarring.

Thomas: [cont from above] A high tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas. And it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree. 

Cindi: The first day of the hearing wrapped at 10:34 PM.

Then there was a second day and a third day–with witnesses for both sides, and more testimony from Thomas.

But there were other witnesses who the public would never hear speak.

Three women were ready to share their own experiences of Clarence Thomas behaving inappropriately, and a fourth was ready to share her corroborating recollection. But Senator Biden never called them to testify.

By the end of the weekend of testimony, support for Thomas was high. You could hear it, in calls like this one to C-SPAN.

Caller 1: As a liberated woman, I was very concerned about Judge Thomas being confirmed to the um to the Supreme Court until these hearings. And now I’m a hundred percent behind him. AAnd I think she’s an embarrassment to all women.

Cindi: On October 14th, Biden closed the hearing. It was 2 in the morning.

Biden: This entire proceeding is ended. [gavel, clapping]

Salamishah: On Oct. 15, The Senate met to vote.

Vice President Quaye: On this vote, the yeas are 52 and the nays are 48. The nomination of Clarence Thomas of Georgia to be Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court is hereby confirmed.

Cindi: At the time, it was the narrowest margin in a Supreme Court Justice confirmation in more than a century.

Mr. Lehrer: After that announcement, President Bush issued a statement saying he had called Thomas to congratulate him. The President said the nation and the court will benefit from having a man of principle who is sensitive to the problems and opportunities facing all Americans.

Cindi:  The hearing was over. But its ripple effects were just beginning. Personally, the mental image of Anita Hill in that room being so openly questioned with such scorn and dismissiveness stuck with me for a while, I think I had seen the universe before that as a friendly place. And watching this clearly credible woman being treated with such dripping derision really pissed me off. And I think on some level, it kind of shattered an illusion of safety for me, of how I, as an adult woman would be treated in the world. So I was angry and I don’t know about you, but listening to these hearings again for me kind of brought a lot of that anger up.

Salamishah: I mean, I know what you mean. It makes me really, really mad today. But at the time, I was so young and I was less enraged and more confused because I didn’t understand what they were talking about. They were using these really sexually explicit terms and they were talking about pornography. And I was really confused. I was shocked. I was worried and also really wondered, is this what I was going to encounter when I entered the workplace? The parts that stood out to me also are those moments when she seems really vulnerable.

A year after Anita Hill gave her testimony, when I went to college, I was sexually assaulted by an African-American man. And I think I knew then how difficult it would be to come forward with allegations of assault. And so when I look back at her testimony, when I listen to her testimony and there are these moments in which she seems to somehow not doubt herself, but she is trying to explain or justify why she continued to work with him. I identify with those moments because when something in my case like sexual assault happens, you blame yourself and you spend so much time reliving those moments and trying to understand why this happened to you.

Of course, what happened to Anita Hill was not her fault. And what happened to Anita Hill was a decision made by Clarence Thomas over and over again. When I listened to that testimony, there were these cracks in these moments that I just wish we didn’t have to hear that she didn’t have to give us.

Cindi: That kind of brings up something that I think is really important to both of us, which is that you listen to this testimony and it’s very easy to think of these as the Anita Hill hearings or even the Anita Hill trial. But these were the Clarence Thomas hearings. He was the one who was there for a job interview. And one thing that’s important to both of us is that throughout this podcast, you’ll never hear us call these the Anita Hill hearings or the Anita Hill trial. Even though it wasn’t a trial, Anita Hill did have to gather a team of lawyers to guide her through the process. After the break, we’ll be talking to one of those lawyers, law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and reporter Jane Mayer, who co-wrote the book on Clarence Thomas and actor Kerry Washington, who witnessed how the hearing divided her family.

We’ll be right back.

Cindi: Anita Hill’s testimony was a single moment in time, when we saw a Black woman stand up to this large institution that didn’t want to believe her. That didn’t want to see her. That didn’t want to hear her.

It reminds me of Fannie Lou Hamer testifying at the Democratic Convention in 1964. Rosa Parks doing a sit-in on the bus in Montgomery. And also a more recent image of this Black woman in Baton Rouge Louisiana, a black lives matter protestor, who has this flowing dress on and she walks up to these armed police officers.

I think it’s important to remember those moments. When a single person — a Black woman — stands up to power. These are such profound acts of patriotism, and also radical acts of dignity in the face of oppression.

Kimberle Crenshaw is part of that remembering. In the fall of 1991, Crenshaw was a young law professor at UCLA.

In the fall of 1991,  Kimberlé Crenshaw was a young law professor at UCLA. A few days before the Clarence Thomas hearings, she joined a conference call for people who wanted to support Anita Hill. It ended with a question: “How quickly can you get to DC?”

Kimberlé: I was in California, I uh basically hung up the phone. I grabbed a bag and and flew to D.C. and got there that morning is as as folks were convening.

Salamishah:  Crenshaw is still a law professor today, as well as the executive director of the African American Policy Forum at Columbia University. She’s probably best known for coining the term “intersectionality.” And she used the term to help us understand what happened to Anita Hill.

Kimberlé: I call this an intersectional failure because Black women had been erased from the conversation about race, racism and sexuality, and they’d been erased from the conversation about patriarchy and sexuality. So she was in no woman’s land. 

Cindi: Even before the hearings started, Crenshaw was no fan of Clarence Thomas. Especially given the seat he was filling—Thurgood Marshall’s.

Kimberlé: I was one of those who thought that it didn’t matter what color, what race, what background Clarence Thomas brought to the table. He was anti civil rights. And that was all that we needed to know. and Thurgood Marshall himself had said something about it doesn’t matter the color of the snake you are, a snake is a snake, and they’ll bite you, not notwithstanding. [laughs] So he was giving as clear a signal as possible that this was not going to be a pro-civil rights nomination.

Salamishah: Crenshaw thought Anita Hill’s opening statement went well.

Kimberlé: I thought that no one who listened to her could not think that she was telling the truth.

Salamishah: But then she heard Thomas’s response, and that high tech lynching line.

Kimberlé: when I heard him say tech lynching, my eyebrows, as my mother used to say, about flew off my head.

In the annals of history, I don’t think there was a time where anyone was lynched because of an accusation that a Black woman had made, so I was shocked and then I thought, well, this isn’t going to work. Black people know that this is not a lynching. Black people understand the history of lynching was basically about Black men being accused of sexually abusing white women. They’re not going to fall for this. That’s what I thought. [laughs] 

What I didn’t anticipate was how little purchase the history of Black women’s sexual abuse actually had in the Black community. I didn’t anticipate or fully understand that when Clarence Thomas threw down the lynching card, he was telling the Black community and liberal white folks, you know this story, I don’t even have to spell it out for you. Here it is. 

Cindi:  there, of course, would have been multiple ways to dismiss this high tech lynching metaphor and sort of disprove it as having validity, why do you think no one on the Senate Judiciary Committee was willing to point that out at the time?

Kimberlé: That, to me, [laughs] is the failure of the century. the Democrats didn’t feel an imperative to come into that arena  fully equipped to defend her. And Anita did not have a card to play. Why didn’t she have a card to play? Well, because the history of Black women’s sexual abuse had not been told, had not been lifted up, had been a source of shame, had been a source of denial, so that folks did not have a prism through which they could understand what Anita Hill was testifying to.

And so what that meant was that Black women were generally erased in the conversation. And where they did show up, they showed up as stereotypes, as people who should not be believed. Black women were seen as being sexually promiscuous and available. And there was a deep gendered association between being sexually active and and not being a truth teller. All of these things were part of the history of Black women’s vulnerability to not only various forms of sexual abuse, but then not being believed when they spoke about them. 

Salamishah: So when did you know you were in real trouble? That their strategy of erasing Black women’s experiences was going to work?

Kimberlé: There are some moments when I look back, and I think that was a turning point for me or there is a fork in the road and I’ll never be the same. So after Clarence Thomas had done the high tech lynching. We were looking for and expecting to see Black people come from everywhere. [laughs] This is outrageous. We’re not going to allow you to take our history and use it for your own personal gain.

So as we left the capital that evening, it was myself and several other folks who had gathered to support Anita. We saw what we thought was the prayer circle coming to support Anita, and we saw them from a distance. We could hear the singing. We knew that they were singing praise songs. We knew that they were praying, So uh we gravitated over towards them. And as I got closer, I was able to see that their T-shirts were proclaiming support for Clarence Thomas, belief in his being ordained to take this seat. 

And then even closer still, the denunciation of Anita Hill, the framing of her as a Jezebel, as a harlot, as all manner of negative stereotypes that are terms that are reserved for women who are seen as untrustworthy. And it was heartbreaking. It was terrifying, um. We turned on our heels and just got out of there as quickly as possible, you know, piled into a cab thinking that we were going to be rescued. And the cab driver had on the talk shows, the radio in which people were calling in from D.C., continuing the harangue against Anita Hill. And the driver himself was so animated that, you know, it almost felt like he was going to run us off the road. It was a diasporic response. [laughs]  He he was a an immigrant who was going on and on about why this Black woman is trying to take this Black man down, And it set the understanding that was an incorrect one, that sexual harassment was a white woman’s issue, that Black women were not sexually harassed, they were not concerned with this issue. That to me was the true jaw dropping moment.  

Kimberlé: It was pretty clear that we were in the fight of our lives. It was pretty clear that my own conception of what solidarity looked like as a Black community, was shattered. Later, it would become abundantly clear that a lot of people believed that what she said actually happened. Like Orlando Patterson, the much celebrated academic wrote a New York Times piece effectively saying that perhaps everything she said, he said, is true, but he was simply performing a downhome courting ritual that every Black woman recognized and knew. And so effectively, Anita, although she might have been telling the truth about what he said was performing as a white woman to show that she was being offended by it. It it was sort of the Black cultural defense to sexual harassment, which was like, [laughs] OK, so effectively [laughs] you’re saying what white people have been saying about Black women for centuries, that they can’t be sexually abused. They’re hardier than that. They are never offended or stressed by inappropriate behavior wherever it is, including in the workforce. At that point it was kind of over for me.

Cindi: Do you remember the moment of his confirmation? Where were you? Can you, can you tell us about that moment? As painful as I’m sure it was? 

Kimberlé: I remember it like it was yesterday. We were still in the capital trying to lobby some of the senators who basically owed their seats to Black voters. We ran into Jesse Jackson [laughs] and he took us from senator to senator to talk to them about why it was important that they vote against Clarence Thomas, important for the history of of civil rights. And they were telling us, how can we do that when the calls that we are getting from our own Black constituents are running six, seven to one to confirm, what purchase does this give me, to vote against him? And when it became clear that the last vote was going to the floor, my colleague and I left and sat on the steps of the Supreme Court and we said, this moment is going to change the rest of our lives. This is what the fight is going to look like from here on. This was the cost of having a non-intersectional understanding of of racism, a non-intersectional understanding of sexual abuse. This is precisely what those failures produced. 

Salamishah: So 30 years later, we’re in a moment wherein certain people, Bill Cosby, Justin Fairfax, R. Kelly, have still invoked this lynching metaphor. In terms of uh defending themselves against allegations of sexual assault. You know, what do you think the lasting implications of Thomas’s use of that line has been?

Kimberlé: I think the lasting significance of Clarence Thomas’s use of the high tech lynching and his subsequent confirmation to the Supreme Court provided a template that has been used again and again and again to defend, to deflect, to excuse, to redirect responsibility for abusing black women. We are at a period of history in which Black women and girls are still seen as responsible for so many of the social ills and not seen as legitimate targets of compassion and concern. So I think that the confirmation of Clarence Thomas on the heels of the false and artificial claim about lynching created a get out of jail free card for almost any way in which a Black woman could be abused by somebody in her own community. And the story is still to be written about what the longer legacy of that high tech lynching moment is. It’s time for that story, however, to be told through a contemporary lens to see what that moment has wrought. And I think we’re seeing it everywhere. 

Cindi: If you’re trying to understand the story of Clarence Thomas and how its changed over time, a good place to start is with Jane Mayer. She’s now the chief Washington correspondent at the New Yorker, but in 1991 she was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal . She had been covering DC for a while, and she had the sense that there was a lot more to know and to report about the Clarence Thomas hearings.

Jane Mayer: We thought we’ve got to stop the clock and really dig in deep and get to the bottom of this. 

Cindi: Eventually she and her colleague Jill Abramson co-wrote the book “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.” Mayer remembers being struck by the Republican attacks on Hill, both in the press and in the hearing room.

Jane Mayer: They were smearing her in every way they could possibly think of. They would call her both a prude and they would call her a nymphomaniac. They would describe her as someone who was wishing that Clarence Thomas had asked her out and then they would also describe her as a lesbian. I mean, they did everything they could to try to take her down, basically. While the specifics were contradictory, there was a single core of unanimity in what they were doing, which was they were trying to completely undermine her credibility in every possible way they could. And why were they doing that? Because they saw her as a threat to confirming Clarence Thomas. 

Salamishah: If Anita Hill was a threat on her own, more allegations of harassment against Thomas could be fatal to his confirmation.

Jane Mayer: So stopping other female witnesses from coming forward was really object number one of the Republicans who wanted to get Clarence Thomas confirmed. 

And there were a number of women we discovered who had been willing to come forward and they were ready to testify. And one of them was Angela Wright, who had handled communications for Clarence Thomas at the EEOC. And then she had left Washington and gone to become a reporter in North Carolina. And she had heard Clarence Thomas say many things that were similar to what Anita Hill had said when she was at the EEOC. 

Clarence Thomas had talked to her about the size of her breasts. Asked what size cups she wore in her bra, he had commented on how he really liked the hair on her legs. He’d pressed her to go out with him. He’d showed up at her house uninvited. These were very similar things to what Anita Hill had also described. 

So it seemed clear when I interviewed Angela Wright that she would have made a killer witness. And the fact that there was a second one probably would have tipped the public’s perception of Clarence Thomas. But Angela Wright never got her chance to testify. Instead, she waited for three days in a motel in Arlington, Virginia, with her lawyer, hoping to get called so that she could come forward and give her side of the story. She had been subpoenaed by the committee, and so she waited there for her her moment and it never came. The senators ran out the time and eventually just took a statement from her that was stuck in the record way too late, where most people didn’t see it.

Cindi: I know one of the other people that you write about in Strange Justice who could have testified was Rose Jourdain and I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about uh her and what her significance was.

Jane Mayer: Well, Rose Jourdain was an amazing woman and she was there to potentially corroborate Angela Wright. So, if people questioned Angela Wright’s credibility, Rose Jourdain who was an older woman who was a speechwriter at the EEOC and a friend of Angela Wright’s, was ready and willing to testify that she remembered all of these things as they had happened to Angela Wright, and that Angela Wright had confided in her, and that she shared the same opinion of Clarence Thomas in the way that he treated women at the EEOC. 

And Rose Jourdain was at the time of the hearings, um she’s an older woman who had some kind of problem that had her in the hospital. She was in a lot of pain, but she was so willing to testify that she was cutting her meds in quarters so that she could be lucid in case she was called and she was hoping to be called and she was willing to be rolled in in a wheelchair or rolled in on a gurney if that’s what it took to testify. But again, instead, the Senate committee just let the time run out. They let the senators just continue nattering on and joking with each other. And these women were never called. And so eventually they just took a statement from her as well, which again, was too late to really have any impact.

Cindi: If Senator Biden had made the decision to allow even just Angela Wright to testify, would Justice Thomas, in your opinion, have been confirmed? 

Jane Mayer: I think he probably would not have been confirmed. it’s hard to know for sure. The Republicans were trying to make Angela Wright out to be, as they called her, Angela Wrong. And they were going to try to really smear her character. But I interviewed her and I thought she would have been an incredibly compelling and convincing witness. 

Cindi: You explained clearly why republicans would be hostile to what Anita hill had to share at these hearings, but why do you think democrats didn’t do more to back up Anita Hill as a credible voice?

Jane Mayer: I think that the Democrats, saw this as a very uncomfortable situation. And in particular, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at that point was Joe Biden. And he was very politically ambitious back then. And as we’ve seen, it finally paid off. And he, even then, wanted to run for president. And people who worked for him told me later that the last thing he wanted to do was alienate Black voters. And this was seen as an incredibly high risk situation for Democrats too. and the white male senators of both parties on that committee were very uncomfortable looking like they might be taking down a Black man or stopping him from being confirmed to the court. So there was a kind of a racial dynamic. And just it was all seen as political risk. They didn’t want to take the risk.

Cindi: During the hearings, Clarence Thomas testified that he never spoke graphically about sex or pornography to his colleagues, but Mayer’s book with Jill Abramson documented persuasively that he, in fact, had done those things.

Jane Mayer: Did Clarence Thomas lie under oath? You know, I’m a reporter, and what I can tell you is there is a ton of evidence that he had a long history of speaking graphically about pornography to his friends and to anybody who was around him, just as Anita Hill had described, and he denied that under oath. So, you know, is there proof? There certainly is great probability that he lied under oath. And why was that not pursued then or since? I think that the reason is that the Republicans on the committee didn’t care. [laughs] They they didn’t care what was true. What they wanted to do was advance an agenda politically, which was to uh solidify the conservative majority on the court and push their political agenda forward. And looking back 30 years later, they absolutely succeeded at that. This is Clarence Thomas’ court that we are seeing today, he is the longest serving justice now. And the court is ruling in concert with his very, very conservative point of view. So that’s why they did it. They didn’t really care what was true or what wasn’t true. It was about power.

Cindi: What do you see as the long term repercussions of that? 

Jane Mayer: Looking at what happened with the Kavanaugh hearings what was learned was you can get away with it and you [laugh] can do it again. Um because we saw with Kavanaugh much of the same playbook. He doubled down on his anger in him and created sort of this response that made him look like he was a victim, which is exactly what Clarence Thomas did. 

I mean, Clarence Thomas talked about it being a high tech lynching, what could be more terrible than a Black man being lynched. And Kavanaugh made it look like he, too, was being, completely drawn and quartered unfairly. And that victim talk really got these guys confirmed. The idea that we have potentially two justices on the Supreme Court, two out of nine, who lied, it seems probable under oath, about whether they had sexually harassed women. That has tremendous ramifications. It undercuts the credibility of the court. It undercuts Americans’ trust in government. It’s, you know, toxic really in many ways. And you know, since then we’ve seen respect for Congress plummet and we’ve seen the court looked more and more as just another sort of political organization. And, this really has hurt, I think, these institutions. Clarence Thomas has been confirmed and Brett Kavanaugh has been confirmed. But there’s no statute of limitations on investigating Supreme Court justices. And I think that this subject still should be opened up and looked at again.

Cindi: You talked before about the implications of Thomas’s confirmation on the court. But I wonder more broadly, when you look back at the hearings, how do you think about them in terms of what good came out of them?

Jane Mayer: I think tremendous good came out of the hearings. When the hearings were over and Clarence Thomas was confirmed, polls showed that the majority of voters in the country thought that Clarence Thomas was telling the truth and that Anita Hill was lying. Exactly one year later, the same poll showed that the country had changed its mind. They now believed Anita Hill. What emerged was a really strong tide of support from women under the age of 45. And they woke up and and this phenomenon of sexual harassment that most women, including myself, I have to say, were really ignorant about, I mean I barely knew that it even existed as something that you could complain about at that point. It was so rife that it just seemed like a way of life. But anyway, these women [laughs] all over the country got angry and they got organized. And there was just an absolutely, a wave of women getting elected to office because they watched these hearings and a number of women just jumped in and said, forget it, I’m running for office. And women came out and voted them in. So it was a huge moment in educating this country and in angering and mobilizing women. 

Salamishah: In our next episode, we’ll hear from one of those women, who was furious, and motivated – and then elected to the Senate.

But before we end this episode, we want to hear from a woman who helped bring Anita Hill’s story to life for a new audience.

Cindi: Kerry Washington is an award-winning actor and producer. She played Anita Hill in the HBO movie, Confirmation.

At the time of the hearings though, she was 14 years old, and living in the Bronx.

Kerry: Up until then I felt that my parents were always on the same page, for the most part, when it came to politics.

I knew that they were Democrats and they just seemed to be on the same side of the issues, the same side of morality and justice. And when the Clarence Thomas hearings happened, it was my first time experiencing my own intersectionality. Because I saw the split. I saw that my father was experiencing one dynamic as a Black man, who had come up against his own kind of struggles with the limitations of his blackness in the workplace. And I saw my mother’s really intense reactions to being a woman in the workplace and understanding the limitations and the injustices that she had faced. And so I got like, oh, there’s there’s a gender dynamic at play here. And it’s not unrelated to race. Um, my dad always makes me add that now in hindsight, he believes Anita, [LAUGHS] he supports Anita. He was living in that historical moment through the lens that he had up until that time, but he sees it very differently today.

Salamishah: And she, of course, was seeing it through her own lens.

Kerry: You know, even at 14 years old, I had had enough experience of what it means to walk through the world in a female body and feel afraid, feel intimidated, have to navigate the misuse of power, I understood enough about gender dynamics to lean toward my mother’s interpretation and understanding of the moment. I just remember thinking, like, why would she put herself through this if it wasn’t true? 

Salamishah: Decades later, when she was preparing for the movie, Washington spent hours watching tapes of the hearings. She listened to them so many times that her husband could recite them verbatim. There was one line that she kept coming back to in her mind.

Kerry: One of the most important moments for me is when she says, I know it’s possible because it happened to me, that moment is the most honest moment. You could see this woman who was very controlled, very prepared, terrified, but really had her game face on and her armor buckled up and to watch the fatigue set in, by the time she gets to that line of ‘it happened to me,’ she’s done. She’s spent. It’s like I have nothing else to give you but my absolute truth. 

Salamishah: Even so, when Washington was making “Confirmation,” it was important to her to portray Thomas with depth and complexity. 

Kerry: I didn’t want to make Clarence Thomas this like, mustache-twirling bad guy. He wasn’t that guy. I believe that he thought and still thinks that he’s right, that he was justified in wanting and deserving the amount of power that he was seeking. So it was really important to me that the character of Clarence Thomas was human, that he wasn’t a villainous, bad guy that you felt for him. But the film was not was not meant to be his story. It was much more her story. 

Cindi: And as she helped tell Anita Hill’s story, Kerry Washington says there were some things she wanted to set straight.

Kerry: In the court of public opinion, I remember even when we were in prep for making the film, people would say to me, oh, yeah, she lost. Right? I was like, lost what? [laughs] Like, this was not a case. It was a hearing. And there was such misunderstanding and that she was perceived as a loser when she had inspired a generation of women leaders that were able to carry forward a feminist agenda that protected women in the workplace, she was able to ignite a movement she was able to um, inspire and lead and transform culture. And so it was important to me to contextualize all that history. And there had been so much narrative that had positioned Clarence Thomas as the rightful winner of his seat on the court. And I just thought, we have to do something about that.

Salamishah: In our next episode, the aftermath. Three women whose lives were changed by watching Anita Hill’s testimony.

For some people, Anita Hill was the spark that lit their fire. For others, the attacks on her felt like a warning.

Salamishah: I’m Salamishah Tillet.

Cindi: And I’m Cindi Leive.

Salamishah: Because of Anita is a production of Pineapple Street Studios and The Meteor.

Cindi: Our senior producer is Kat Aaron and our managing producer is Agerenesh [Ah-gah–RAY-nesh]Ashagre, [Ah–SHA-grey].

Salamishah: This show was also produced by Justine Daum [DOWM like down]. Our associate producers are Janelle Anderson, and Xandra [Zandra] Ellin.

Cindi: Our editor is Leila [LEE-luh] Day.

Salamishah: Our project lead for The Meteor is Rebecca Halperin.

Cindi: Fact-checking by Ivette [E-vette] Manners.

Salamishah: Our engineers are Davy Sumner and Raj [RAHGE] Makhija [mah-KEY-juh], and Hannis Brown.

Cindi: Special thanks to Joel Lovell and Maddy Sprung-Keyser [Sprung-KEYE-zur] at Pineapple Street.

Salamishah: This episode features original compositions by Davy Sumner, Raj Makhija [MAH-key-juh], and Hannis Brown.

Cindi: Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.

Salamishah: Our show art is by Pentagram and our additional art is by Pixelittle.

Cindi: Our executive producers at the Meteor are us, Salamishah Tillet and Cindi Leive. Our C-O-O at the Meteor is Kara Kearns. And our executive producers at Pineapple Street are Max Linsky and Jenna Weiss Berman.

Salamishah: Thank you to Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jane Mayer and Kerry Washington for joining us for this episode.