Clarence Thomas: 27 Years On – What’s Changed?

On 1st July 1991, the then-president George H. W. Bush nominated conservative Clarence Thomas to take over the role of Supreme Court Justice from Thurgood Marshall, who was retiring. Towards the end of the initial hearings, Anita Hill, a former colleague of Thomas, came out with allegations that he had been making unwanted sexual comments and sexual advances towards her.
On 11th October 1991, Hill was called to the stand to testify against Clarence Thomas. During the trial, she was simply listed as a character witness, due to the fact that she was not sure as to whether or not he had actually crossed the line with regard to illegal sexual harassment.

She testified that, ten years earlier, she was attorney-adviser to Thomas at the US Department of Education, and had joined him as his private secretary during his time at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She testified that it was during these two positions that Thomas had been making unwanted sexual comments towards her. Hill testified about his lewd behaviour and comments. Three other women, Angela Wright, Sukari Hardnett and Rose Jourdain came out in support of her testimony with similar experiences of their own with Thomas. However, they were dismissed by the Senate Judiciary Committee before they could officially testify. Thomas testified on the stand, “I deny each and every allegation against me today”. He also stated of the hearing and the media circus surrounding it, “this is a high-tech lynching”. On October 15th, 1991, Clarence Thomas was confirmed by the Senate as a Supreme Court judge with a vote of 52-48. He was sworn in on October 23rd 1991.

On 9th July 2018, President Donald Trump nominated conservative Brett Kavanaugh to take over the role of
Supreme Court Justice from Anthony Kennedy, who was retiring. The Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings on 4th September 2018. Towards the end of the confirmation hearings, Christine Blasey Ford came forward and alleged that Brett Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, pushed her into a room and attempted to assault her at a high school party in 1982, 36 years earlier. While she initially made the allegations anonymously, the Washington Post soon revealed her to be the author of the anonymous letter, and she was called to testify on 27th September 2018.

Three other women came forward during the hearings, with similar allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh. These women were Deborah Ramirez, Julie Swetnick and Judy Munro-Leighton, and the allegations were made on 23rd September, 26th September, and 3rd October respectively. Not one of these other women were called to testify officially. Kavanaugh stated of the allegations, in particular Blasey Ford’s allegation,“this is ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone. I don’t know who this is and it never happened”. President Trump heavily endorsed Kavanaugh saying, “he is an outstanding judge, an outstanding judge, respected by everybody. Never had even a little blemish on his record”. He later mocked Blasey Ford’s testimony of the night in question at a Las Vegas rally.

Despite an emotional testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, corroborating notes from her therapist and allegations from other women, Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice by the Senate, with a vote of 51-49. He was sworn-in on 7th October 2018.

So, two very similar Supreme Court nomination hearings, 27 years apart. What has changed between Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh?

Anita Hill recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, comparing her own experiences with Christine Blasey Ford’s, writing, “that the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing suggests that the committee has learned little from the Thomas hearing, much less the more recent #MeToo movement”.

It is true to say that the societal movements of the times were certainly very different between 1991 and 2018. 1991 was a year that was heavily overshadowed by the rise of police brutality and racial violence to the national attention. On 3rd March 1991, Rodney King, an African- American man, was stopped by the police in his car, and brutally beaten, kicked and taunted. The entire incident was captured on video, and sent to a local news station. This incident was one of the first incidents of police brutality captured on camera and aired in all major news channels. National outrage quickly followed, and in 1992, a series of protests in LA began, in which 63 people died, and 2,283 people were injured.

Racism and police brutality being in the forefront of the national mind perhaps explains why Clarence Thomas himself said that his trials were like “a high-tech lynching”. And this certainly illustrates the culture of the time, and perhaps acts as an explanation of why Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Judge and Anita Hill was not believed.

In 2018, on the other hand, the #MeToo movement was in the forefront of the national mind. A movement which highlighted the need to believe women and to speak out against sexual assault. So, one has to question why, in this time of believing women, was Christine Blasey Ford not believed? There is no simple answer to this, but I do think that there has been a widespread sense of national and international apathy about sexual assault and harassment since the rise of #MeToo.
When the Harvey Weinstein accusations emerged, there was huge outrage and outcry against sexual assault. Since then, since Trump has been accused, since Cristiano Ronaldo was accused, and since Kevin Spacey’s career was destroyed, people are starting to feel more and more apathetic about women’s experiences of sexual assault and more and more fearful for themselves – despite the rate of false accusations being at an all-time low. Because of all of this, people were less inclined to believe Blasey Ford.

So, during the nomination and hearings of Clarence Thomas, race relations were in the forefront of the national mind – for that reason, the accusation of a previously well respected and hard-working black man was seen to be completely outrageous, and therefore Anita Hill was not believed, and he was confirmed to the Supreme Court. During the nomination and hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the #MeToo movement had sparked an international outrage about sexual assault, before bringing in a sense of apathy and fear amongst men. Therefore, Christine Blasey Ford was not believed, and Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed.

After all of this, one does have to ask: if not now, and if not in 1991, when will women ever be believed?

– Maddy Gowers, Class of 2019