Kavanaugh hearing recalls Clarence Thomas case: will history repeat itself?

Millions watched on TV in 1991 as Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment, endured a deeply unpleasant line of questioning from an all-male panel

Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing him of sexual assault, will testify before US lawmakers on Capitol Hill in a pivotal moment for the future of Donald Trump’s nominee to the supreme court.

Kavanaugh faces allegations of sexual misconduct from Ford and two other women, throwing into jeopardy his prospects of being confirmed to America’s highest judicial bench.

The looming showdown has drawn immediate parallels to the 1991 saga involving Clarence Thomas, one of the supreme court’s conservative justices, and Anita Hill, who, during his confirmation process, accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill, like Ford, agreed to publicly testify before the Senate judiciary committee, with millions of Americans watching at home.

Here are the key similarities and differences in both cases.

Republicans on the panel are all white men – again

When Hill testified before the Senate judiciary committee in 1991, there was not a single woman on the panel. The 14-member, all-male committee was led by then Senator Joe Biden, who would later go on to become Barack Obama’s vice-president.

Orrin Hatch with fellow Republicans Chuck Grassley, Alan Simpson and Strom Thurmond at the Thomas hearings in 1991.
Orrin Hatch with fellow Republicans Chuck Grassley, Alan Simpson and Strom Thurmond at the Thomas hearings in 1991. Photograph: John Duricka/AP

Three of the men Hill faced on the committee, Senators Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, both Republicans, remain on the panel today. Grassley currently chairs the committee and has led the proceedings regarding Kavanaugh.

The Republicans on the committee are all men. But there will be four female senators – all of them Democrats – present to question Ford and Kavanaugh: Senators Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s ranking member, Kamala Harris, Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar.

In an effort to counter the optics of their all-male representation, Republicans hired a female outside attorney, Rachel Mitchell, to question Kavanaugh and Ford on their behalf. Mitchell has been a prosecutor since 1993 and focuses on sex crimes and family violence in Phoenix, Arizona.

Lines and tone of questioning

During Hill’s testimony, the spectacle of 14 white men questioning a black woman proved a stark symbol of the lack of female representation within the upper echelons of American politics. The statements from male senators, and the way they treated Hill, were deemed insensitive and riddled with bias.

Biden, who later expressed regret over his handling of the Hill hearing, was criticized for his tone. Asking Hill to recount the sexually charged comments she alleged Thomas threw her way, Biden said:

“Can you tell us how you felt at the time? Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you? How did you feel about it?”

Some of the other men on the committee downplayed and even mocked Hill’s assertions to her face.

“You testified this morning that the most embarrassing question involved – this is not too bad – women’s large breasts,” Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, told Hill at the time. “That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you?”

Joe Biden alongside Ted Kennedy.
Joe Biden alongside Ted Kennedy. Photograph: Greg Gibson/AP

After Hill recalled Thomas once asking her, while drinking a can of soda, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”, Hatch accused Hill of stealing a line from The Exorcist. Reading aloud from a copy of the book, Hatch cited a character saying he had found an “alien pubic hair” in his gin.

“She would have us believe that you were saying things because you wanted to date her?” Hatch asked Thomas. “What do you think about that judge?”

“Senator, I think that this whole affair is sick,” Thomas responded.

“I think it’s sick too,” Hatch said.

Hatch has similarly cast doubt on Ford’s allegations, stating she must be “mistaken” about the identity of her attacker and that Kavanaugh is a “good man”.

Some Republicans on the committee have struck a more sympathetic tone. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona implored his colleagues on Thursday not to cast doubt on the character of either involved parties.

“I don’t believe that Dr Ford is part of some vast conspiracy from start to finish to smear Judge Kavanaugh, as has been alleged by some on the right,” Flake said. But he also said: “I do not believe that Judge Kavanaugh is some kind of serial sexual predator, as some have alleged on the left.”

The women and the allegations

At the 1991 hearing, Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment during their time working together nearly a decade earlier. Hill did not wish to be publicly identified at first, but she came forward following Thomas’s confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill and volunteered to testify.

Hill alleged that Thomas made lewd comments, including discussing pornographic materials and recounting graphic details to her “of his own sexual prowess”, as she worked under him in government roles from 1981 to 1983. Hill added that Thomas asked her out between five and 10 times during the same period.

Clarence Thomas denounces and denies Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations.
Clarence Thomas denounces and denies Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations. Photograph: John Duricka/AP

Ford, meanwhile, accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape when the two were teenagers more than 30 years ago. In an interview with the Washington Post earlier this month, Ford alleged that a drunken Kavanaugh corralled her into a room at a house party in the summer of 1982, pinned her down, groped her and covered her mouth to muffle her screams.

Ford, a 51-year-old research psychologist based in northern California, said she endured years of trauma as a result and provided notes from a therapist to the Post. She also took a polygraph test and alleged that Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s in high school, was present during the alleged attack. Judge has said he has no recollection of the incident and refused to testify.

The nominees and their defense

Thomas and Kavanaugh have vehemently denied the allegations against them.

“I have not said or done the things Anita Hill has alleged,” Thomas testified in 1991. He went on to criticize the hearing as “a hi-tech lynching for uppity blacks” and suggested Hill’s charges were the work of interest groups seeking to block his path to the supreme court.

Thomas denied having ever asked Hill on a date and told lawmakers he was “shocked, surprised, hurt and enormously saddened” by her claims. He portrayed himself instead as someone who viewed Hill as a friend and had sought to help her career.

Kavanaugh has similarly cast the allegations of sexual misconduct as part of a smear campaign.

“I am not questioning that Dr Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time. But I have never done that to her or to anyone,” Brett Kavanaugh will testify, according to excerpts released of his prepared remarks to the committee. “I am innocent of this charge.”

Kavanaugh has also rebuked suggestions from his accusers and others that he engaged in a heavy drinking culture in his school days, where the objectification of women was commonplace. Kavanaugh said he occasionally had one too many beers, but denied ever drinking to the point where he had lapses in his memory.

The cultural backdrop

The climate in which Hill testified was decidedly less attuned to sexual harassment in the workplace and gender inequality.

A review of media coverage likened the portrayal of the Hill-Thomas hearings to that of “a novel, TV show, melodrama, theater, fiction, grade B movie, X-rated film, saga, soap opera, or morality play”.

At the time of the hearing, a majority of Americans supported Thomas’s confirmation, although polling after the fact later showed Americans in Hill’s favor.

But Hill’s treatment at the hands of an all-male panel shed light on the fact that only two women were serving at the time in the entire US Senate. It prompted a social movement that culminated in 1992 being declared the “Year of the Woman” – when the number of women in the Senate doubled, and female membership in the House went from 28 to 47.

Patty Murray, then a Washington state senator, recalled watching the hearing from her home in 1991. Now a member of Democratic leadership, she was inspired to run for the Senate after feeling appalled by the highly personal and insensitive line of questioning Hill was subjected to.

Dianne Feinstein will be one of four female senators to question Ford and Kavanaugh.
Dianne Feinstein will be one of four female senators to question Ford and Kavanaugh. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Murray was elected to the US Congress in the 1992 election alongside Feinstein, who now sits on the same committee that will question Ford.

Ford’s testimony will arrive in the context of the #MeToo era of reckoning around sexual assault and harassment, that has brought down prominent men accused of sexual misconduct across a number of industries, including entertainment, media and politics.

Disapproval of Kavanaugh has risen sharply amid the allegations, according to surveys, with a majority of Americans also stating they believe Ford’s story over his denials.

There are also a record number of women running for office this year, with November’s midterm elections poised to determine which party will control each chamber of Congress. The Republican defense of Kavanaugh has already proved a rallying cry for Democrats, who believe the allegations against him could boost turnout among female voters.

The other accusers

Among the factors that tipped the scales against Hill was that she stood in the committee room as Thomas’s lone accuser. But another woman, Angela Wright, also accused Thomas of sexual harassment while working working with him.

Wright, who was fired from her job, later said in an interview that she was not called to testify, despite waiting with her attorneys for three days to get the call.

“I had gone home, turned on CNN, and saw Anita Hill standing there,” Wright told NPR in 2007. “I didn’t know her. But I knew that Clarence Thomas was capable.”

Since Ford first came forward, Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual misconduct by two other women.

Deborah Ramirez, a former classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University, said he exposed himself to her at a dormitory party in the 1980s. A third accuser, Julie Swetnick, alleged to witnessing a teenage Kavanaugh and his friends spike the drinks of girls at parties in the early 1980s to facilitate their gang rape.

Kavanaugh denied both allegations, stating he did not know Swetnick and her claims were “ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone”.

Swetnick made the charges in a signed affidavit released by her attorney, Michael Avenatti, who is best known for defending Stormy Daniels, the adult film actor who said she was paid hush money to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Donald Trump.

Avenatti said Swetnick was willing to testify and provided her statement to the Senate judiciary committee. Ramirez also said she would appear before the committee if called. Republicans on the committee have so far declined to subpoena either of the two women.


Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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