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):
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