Hill-Thomas Hearings, conducted by the United States Senate Judiciary
Committee to investigate Prof. Anita Hill's allegations of prior
sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, were
televised nationally on American television from 11 October to 13
October 1991. Although the hearings themselves had no legal significance,
to many observers they symbolized a public referendum on sexual
harassment and other gender inequities in late twentieth-century
America. As such, they have been widely credited with increasing
public awareness about gender discrimination and motivating female
voters during the 1992 congressional elections.
President George Bush's nominee to replace Thurgood Marshall on
the Supreme Court, Thomas had already been through confirmation
hearings during September, 1991, although the Senate Judiciary Committee
was unable to make a recommendation to the full Senate after these
hearings. Thomas' appointment seemed further jeopardized by 6 October
reports in Newsday and on National Public Radio of alleged acts
of sexual harassment toward a co-worker from 1981 to 1983. These
charges, made by Anita Hill during interviews with the FBI, were
apparently leaked to the press just days before the Senate's final
vote on Thomas' appointment. Responding to demands from feminist
organizations and seven female Democratic members of the House of
Representatives, the Senate delayed the vote in order to hear more
about Hill's allegations.
the three days of televised hearings, the Senators and the viewing
public heard testimony from both Hill and Thomas, as well as their
supporters. Hill referred to specific incidents of Thomas' behavior,
including repeated requests for dates and references to pornographic
material. Thomas vehemently denied Hill's allegations and responded
with outrage, at one point by calling the hearings "a national disgrace...a
high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think
for themselves, to do for themselves." So adamant was each sides'
accounts that many observers in the press labeled the hearings an
example of "He Said, She Said," with both parties offering such
vastly differing recollections of events that many wondered if the
hearings could ever reveal the truth.
days after the hearings ended, with no clear resolution of the discrepancy
between Hill's and Thomas' accounts, the Senate voted on Thomas'
confirmation. Due to the media coverage of the hearings, public
interest in the vote was unusually high, as evidenced by a barrage
of phone calls and faxes sent to the capital on this issue. Although
opinion polls reported evidence of debate and division among minority
groups, including African-Americans and women, they also indicated
that a majority of voters supported Thomas. Ultimately, the Senate
voted 52-48 in favor of Thomas' confirmation.
visual imagery and political symbolism of the hearings may have
been their most important legacy. In this regard the hearings take
their place alongside other memorable television events, including
The Army-McCarthy Hearings and the Watergate Proceedings. These
events exemplify television's ability to galvanize a national audience
around matters of crucial social significance and often they stand
as historical markers of significant social and cultural shifts.
many feminist groups refer to Anita Hill as the mother of a new
wave of awareness of gender discrimination, particularly given the
attacks on her credibility that she withstood from the white male
senators. Such observers feel that the sight and sounds of a composed,
articulate law professor being questioned about her mental state,
(some senators and Thomas supporters had theorized that Hill was
"delusional") were unconscionable to female viewers who themselves
had experienced sexual harassment. Harriett Woods, then president
of the National Women's Political Caucus, commented that "Anita
Hill focused attention on the fact that there were no women in that
Senate panel making decisions about people's lives."
is true for so many cultural memories in the United States, the
televised Hill-Thomas hearings etched some clear and unforgettable
images into the minds of the American public. To those observers
who did not believe Hill's claims, the hearings represented the
gravity of such allegations in a society where gender politics can
be divisive. To Hill's sympathizers, the memory of a lone women
reluctantly speaking out about past painful experiences to a room
full of bewildered and unsympathetic men may have been one reason
why an unprecedented 29 women were elected in the subsequent congressional
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