October 20th, 2010
11:02 AM ET

Anita Hill scandal almost sank Clarence Thomas

Anita Hill testified in 1991 about about claims of sexual advances from then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Who is Anita Hill and what does Justice Clarence Thomas' wife want her to apologize for?

Before Thomas became a federal judge, he worked in the Department of Education and later was chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to 1990.

After President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, Thomas underwent nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate and a vote was scheduled.

Two days before the scheduled vote, Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her boss at the Education Department and the EEOC.

Time magazine described what followed as an "ugly circus" in which both Thomas and Hill were "eviscerated."

Hill testified that Thomas repeatedly asked her out on dates and spoke to her crudely about his sexual prowess and things he had seen in pornographic movies. She said she rebuffed his advances and always tried to change the subject when he started talking about sex.

Read a transcript of Hill's testimony and Thomas' rebuttal here.

She said the harassment died down for a while, so she felt safe following him to his new position at the EEOC. However, the push for dates and the sexual talk resumed and even escalated at the new job, she told the committee, whose chairman was Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware.

"He began to show displeasure in his tone of voice and his demeanor in his continued pressure for an explanation [of why I wouldn't go out with him]," Hill testified. "He commented on what I was wearing in terms of whether it made me more or less sexually attractive. The incidents occurred in his inner office at the EEOC.

"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?'"

Hill said she was hospitalized for five days with severe stomach pain that she attributed to job-related stress, and she subsequently sought employment elsewhere.

She said she finally consented to go to dinner with Thomas one time on her last day of employment with the government. During that dinner, she said, Thomas told her that if she ever told anyone about his behavior it would ruin his career.

"This was not an apology, nor was it an explanation," she said.

The media went crazy over Hill's testimony, which was carried live on television and radio. Some senators and others who supported Thomas questioned her truthfulness and even her mental state.

Thomas demanded that he be allowed to rebut Hill's allegations and clear his name before the Senate decided on his confirmation, so the vote was postponed for a week.

"This is a person I have helped at every turn in the road, since we met," Thomas told the Judiciary Committee. "She seemed to appreciate the continued cordial relationship we had since day one. She sought my advice and counsel, as did virtually all of the members of my personal staff.

"During my tenure in the executive branch as a manager, as a policymaker, and as a person, I have adamantly condemned sex harassment. There is no member of this committee or this Senate who feels stronger about sex harassment than I do. As a manager, I made every effort to take swift and decisive action when sex harassment raised or reared its ugly head.

"The fact that I feel so very strongly about sex harassment and spoke loudly about it at EEOC has made these allegations doubly hard on me. I cannot imagine anything that I said or did to Anita Hill that could have been mistaken for sexual harassment."

The Senate confirmed Thomas' nomination on October 15, 1991, on a 52-48 vote, the closest Supreme Court confirmation vote in history.

Thomas would later refer to the hearings as a "high-tech lynching for an uppity black."

Thomas went on to become one of the most conservative justices on the court, and one of the least heard. He seldom asks questions during oral arguments and rarely grants interviews, but a 2004 Washington Post profile suggests he carries considerable clout.

Hill now teaches law at Brandeis University and spends her free time painting and drawing, according to a 2005 CNN.com article.

The controversy over Hill's allegations brought workplace sexual harassment out into the open. According to a George Mason University analysis of EEOC documents, sexual harassment cases more than doubled in the five years following Thomas' nomination. Over the same period, awards to victims under federal laws jumped from $7.7 million to $27.8 million, records showed.

The scandal became a textbook case for teaching about sexual harassment and how employees and employers should deal with it.

The case also may have spurred more women to get into politics, as many women were appalled by the way Hill was questioned by the all-male Senate panel.

"Anita Hill focused attention on the fact that there were no women in that Senate panel making decisions about people's lives," said Harriett Woods, then president of the National Women's Political Caucus, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, Illinois.

Check out this archival material from Time:

Sex, Lies and Politics: He Said, She Said

Clarence Thomas: A Question of Character
Anita Hill's Legacy in the Workplace

'Strange Justice': A Book on Clarence Thomas

Smearing Anita Hill: A Writer Confesses

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Filed under: Anita Hill • Politics • Supreme Court • U.S.
soundoff (140 Responses)
  1. billp

    It's becoming clearer why Virginia Thomas opened this can of worms now. She has been on the receiving end of some ethical questions in her business dealings lately, so this will distract from those and fire up her husband's supporters. That should prevent further inquiry into other areas, as they will claim sustained persecution on the heels of this. Very Machiavellian.

    October 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • KellyinCA

      Of course, now she's brought down the heat on herself and her husband. The Tea Party Movement may be on the verge of a death by a thousand cuts as scandal after scandal brings down the leadership and the candidates.

      I have to wonder if all of this is as much the Republican establishment's attempt to regain control of the GOP as it is the pushback from Democrats. The target may suggest the latter, but the method suggests the former.

      October 20, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. FranSays

    He played on America's desire for politcal correctness by saying "this is a high tech lynching". He has brought nothing to the court and will forever be thought of as a "pervert".

    October 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ben Dover

    Justice Thomas is neither competent nor qualified. He was rated UNqualified by the ABA at the time of his nomination. He was the token replacement for a GREAT jurist, Thurgood Marshall. He is a know nothing, do nothing rubber stamp for neocons.

    October 20, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Patty

    I do not believe that Anita Hill was telling the truth. If it was so bad, why did she follow him to the EEOC? She is full of it and made the man's life miserable for a while. My take on this is that perhaps they had an affair and Thomas cut it off and this was her way to get back him. You know.....hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

    October 20, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      She wasn't the only woman to tell the truth. She took and passed a polygraph test – Thomas refused to take it.

      October 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lin McKay

    Anita Hill put her reputation on the line and what does she have to show for it . . . ridiculous voice messages from Virginia Lamp Thomas. Whatever Mrs. Thomas' agenda is she should stop it now. Most of us with intelligence know the wrong person is sitting on the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas is a weak justice, has a less than clean past and quite likely encouraged his wife to make the telephone call. Time to remove him. Too bad Ms Hill did not have a lifetime restraining order against Justice Thomas and Mrs. Lamp Thomas. I doubt this is the end of it as Mrs. Thomas was stupid enough to make the first call . . . there likely will be others.

    October 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Annexian

    Too bad she didn't sink him.

    One man's opinion, but he earned the "Uncle" label a lot of Blackfellas I know added. Just sat there, voted for the big corporations and monied interests. Oh, yeah, when a racist not backed by big money got up there, he took special time to blast them, even if they had a legit "Free Speech" argument.

    But I've heard:

    "UNCLE Clarence Thomas"

    October 20, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. kate

    The man is a pig

    October 20, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sandy Carey

    And, it should have. The guy's a freak of nature, not an intelligent man, a worse human being and has offered nothing constructive during his tenure on the Court - though that can be said about others on the Court as well. Now, we find that his wife is even more screwy than her hubby - YIKES!! Get out the bug spray!

    October 20, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joel Miller

    Too bad he wasn't sunk. This guy is about as stupid as they come, ideology notwithstanding.

    October 20, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. nuclearoption

    I bet Clarence Thomas has become a huge Pepsi fan!

    October 20, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. WVLady47

    Too bad it missed its mark.......another example of someone getting something because of the color of their skin.

    October 20, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Julia

    Am I the only person reading this who actually watched the hearings? There were a number of women who worked for Thomas who testified they had never heard the type of think Hill accussed him of, and they were creditible...to not only me, but to the panel as well, as confirmed by the vote. That's one of the main reasons he was confirmed...there was no creditible evidence for her accusations (or at least I can recall none) and there was creditable testimony that he was not the type of person she accused him of being. It was ugly and bitter, and not our finest hour, but I truly don't remember any of the support for Hill that has been metioned here by others.

    October 20, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. elidude

    Almost sank him? It did; he was just to dumb to know it.

    October 20, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Art

    I have one message for Virginia Thomas – as Mark Twain said: Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.
    Having watched a great deal of the Anita Hill testimony, I believed Clarence Thomas was guilty.
    As both liberal and conservative members of the court have said, he is a non-participant both in closed door deliberations and in court sessions.

    October 20, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Seth Pascal

    Dream on, Cookie Monster.

    You’re really just part of …

    Lucid the novel dot com

    October 20, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
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