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Jane Ahlin, Published October 31 2010

Ahlin: Still a boys club 19 years after sordid Hill-Thomas hearings

Speculation as to why Ginni Thomas (wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) left Anita Hill (Thomas’ sexual harassment accuser during his confirmation hearings a few decades ago) a phone message early one recent Saturday generally has been kind, viewing her as a wife still out to clear her husband’s name.

Still, a few pundits suggest there’s “method to her madness,” a conscious act to divert attention from media interest in ethical problems her political organization, Liberty Central, poses for Justice Thomas (particularly concerning anonymous donors) even as she puts Republicans on notice not to stray from right-wing ideology – a battle cry of sorts to remember the hearings, much like “Remember the Alamo.”

Nineteen years ago this October, 19 male senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t know what to do with Anita Hill. The tenured University of Oklahoma law professor accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during the time she worked for him at the EEOC.

Suddenly, the whole country was spellbound by the sordid he-said/she-said testimony: Was Thomas a victim of character assassination, or was he pornography-obsessed, a man who pestered Hill to date him and harassed her with graphic sexual descriptions and boasts of his own sexual prowess?

For all but die-hard Thomas supporters, that burning question was settled through years of ongoing revelations that have bolstered Hill’s story, not his. From his fixation on pornography to the infamous pubic hair/cola can remark, her claims have been verified.

At the time of the hearings, three of Hill’s friends testified that she had told them about his inappropriate behavior. She also passed a lie detector test. (Note: With old-style paternalistic sexism, one senator and Thomas proponent dismissed Hill’s passing the lie detector test by saying the poor woman was so mentally ill she didn’t realize she was lying.)

But Thomas’ testimony also was powerful. He even asked why others had not come forward if he’d done what Hill said. It was a good question. No one knew then that two women actually had said they were willing to testify but the committee chose not to call them.

As incensed female legislators made clear when they marched to the hearings to complain about the overtly hostile and demeaning treatment of Hill, the male committee members – regardless of party – didn’t “get it.” Their instinctual bias was toward the plight of any man falsely accused (but for the grace of God …). What was needed was female presence on the judiciary committee. In the end, the fact that Thomas almost certainly had engaged in illegal workplace behavior and perjured himself under oath did not keep him from becoming a Supreme Court justice.

What we thought had been learned after the Thomas/Hill fiasco was not about “women’s issues”; rather, it was new understanding for how women see issues. That gender is part of the lens through which human beings see the world and that decision-making is better when both women and men are involved was an “aha” moment across society. When women went on to make great gains in the next election cycle, it seemed as if the Thomas hearings might be a concrete step toward gender balance in government.

Not so. In confirmation hearings this year for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen, a grand total of two women sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And 17 men.

With Sotomayor and Kagen, a third of the Supreme Court now is female, and that’s good; however, the U.S. ranks 85th in the world in women’s parliamentary representation. Only 12 percent of governors are women, and only 17 percent of national legislative seats are held by women.

Whatever prompted Ginni Thomas to call Anita Hill and put the Thomas confirmation hearings back in the spotlight, that’s the outcome that should give us pause.

Ahlin is a weekly contributor to The Forum’s Sunday commentary page.