Nina Totenberg, who broke the story of Anita Hill’s allegations about Thomas, has an interesting retrospective of the Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings. I was just starting my second year in graduate school in 1991. Sexual trauma was big in the news of 1991: that summer had already featured the ugly smearing of a high-profile rape victim in the trial (and acquittal) of William Kennedy Smith. The Thomas hearings had us all riveted–on the one hand, it was remarkable to see a young, black woman’s testimony about sexual harassment entered into the public record. On the other, the all-too-predictable reactions of the U.S. Senators who treated Anita Hill with such smarmy condescention or prurient personal attacks (Snarlin’ Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch in particular) were almost too much to bear.
Senator Ted Kennedy was of course notably silent through these hearings, because he had been a witness called at his nephew’s rape trial the previous summer. (That’s what Snarlin’ Arlen meant to imply when he said towards the end of the clip above, “Mr. Chairman I object to that. I object to that vociferously. . . If Senator Kennedy has anything to say, let him participate in this hearing.”)
Anita Hill looks so young and without defenses or allies in these old clips. She was unimaginably brave to endure this in public. Deborah Gray White suggests the powerful historical currents that Hill swam against 20 years ago in Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2008):
Their particular history, the black woman’s history, was especially oppressive. [One author] alluded to its prohibitive nature when she delicately noted the “almost unmentionable history of the burdens of those soul-trying times when, to bring profit to the slave trade and to satisfy the base desires of the stronger hand, the Negro woman was the subject of compulsory immorality.” Sylvia Francoz Williams was even more direct. So painful was the wound of the black woman’s history, she argued, that “her detractors rely upon her not voluntarily reopening it, even to probe it for its cure.” Perceptively, Williams maintained that the black woman’s “sensitiveness on this point has been the greatest shield to the originators of the scandal,” 5.
I recall being in a graduate seminar that week in which the professor asked, “what do you think will be the historical legacy of the Thomas hearings? Is this a turning point?” Some students said that yes, the Thomas hearings would change a lot, and one third-year graduate student informed us that “I’m taking notes for future lectures right now.” Perhaps unimaginatively, I answered “no,” mostly because for me, the Thomas hearings were about men closing ranks to trash a young woman’s testimony. Secondarily, they revealed a continuing and disturbing white fascination with black bodies and black sexuality. I didn’t think the Thomas hearings would make the problem of sexual harassment go away, or even that there would even be a consensus that it was a problem at all. Unfortunately, I think I was right. In the past twenty years or so we have witnessed a fierce backlash against feminist efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to define rape and sexual harassment. The 1990s and the 2000s have featured high-profile and successful efforts by men to redefine rape as consensual sex.
Perhaps one small thing has changed for the better, at least in the field of American women’s history. Since the Thomas hearings, African American feminist scholars have developed a small but powerful bibliography on the rape and sexual trauma that was central to the process of enslavement in the Americas. Before 1991, Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South(1985) was the only monograph on enslaved women. But the ferment of the 1990s produced a growing number of young scholars who would write about the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality in slavery and in the post-emancipation United States in articles and books that put black women’s experiences at their centers. African American and feminist historians are now developing a historiography and a language with which to confront a history that is characterized by rape and other forms of sexual and family trauma. I wonder if there would have been the beginnings of this kind of history without Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee twenty years ago.
Here is a list of selected titles in my field that address sexuality in African American women’s history:
- Mia Bay, “In Search of Sally Hemings in the Post-DNA Era,” Reviews in American History, 34:4 (2006), 407-426.
- Daina Berry, “Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe”: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (2007)
- Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006)
- Kathleen Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs : Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996)
- Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004)
- Kirsten Fischer, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (2002)
- Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1998)
- Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004)
- Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996)
- Jennifer Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans (2009)
- Wendy Anne Warren, “‘The Cause of her Grief’: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England,” Journal of American History 93:4 (2007) 1031-1049.