A Feminist Writes about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Conflict

Jill Niebrugge-Brantley


The testimony of Anita Hill in the United States Senate Hearings on the Nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in October 1991 was significant in two ways: (1) for what it did and (2) for what it showed. What Hill's testimony did was to make sexual harassment an issue women and men across the United States--and much of the world--could no longer ignore, had to debate, had to confront. The hearings, because of Hill's testimony, forced sexual harassment onto the national agenda. What Hill's testimony and the conduct of the hearings around that testimony showed is the operation of what I shall call "the politics of difference," the structure that really rules America by dividing people into created differences of race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation.

In this essay, I want to talk, as a feminist about what Hill's testimony and the hearings did; but I want to put that discussion into the context of what they showed, which I am calling "the politics of difference." Thus, I first define the politics of difference. Then, I turn to what the testimony and hearings did, exploring why the public discussion of sexual harassment should be so important to the nation and the world--important no matter how you felt about Hill.

The Politics of Difference Defined

The politics of difference is a set of practices and ideologies that use the fundamental fact of human differences and similarities to divide unequally the wealth and power of the world. The politics of difference does this by determining what differences will matter and how they will count. For example , of any two people, it is possible to ask if they are more alike than different. Is it more important that two people are both blue-eyed or that one is a girl and one is a boy? Is it more important that they both require a term paper in the courses they teach or that one is heterosexual and the other is homosexual? Is it more important that they both are going to graduate school or that one is "white" and the other is "black"? I use quotation marks here to suggest how absolutely manufactured and artificial both these categories are. And I suggest to you that all categories are to a degree "made." The differences we ascribe to sexual orientation are based on one dimension only---the gender of the partner; but many dimensions would be possible--frequency, age, power relations, types of body contact preferred. The politics of difference makes some differences "truer" or more important than other differences. In the United States the differences that matter are those we can call "the chief vectors of oppression and privilege"--race, class, gender, age (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1995) . Try measuring yourself or others on these vectors--is it better to be an old man or an old woman? a black man or a white woman? a wealthy man or a wealthy woman? a wealthy black woman or a middle-income white man? a wealthy old black woman or a middle-income young white man? (How many wealthy old black women have there been in the United States? Remember that one proof of the power of these vectors is in one's ability to understand what constitutes "wealthy.")


  • The Politics of Difference at the Thomas Hearings

If one looks at any pictures of the Hearings, looks at the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991, looks at the two key witnesses, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, one sees "the politics of difference" in action. The Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991 is made up of 15 white, very wealthy, men. The attributes of whiteness, maleness, power and wealth are not accidental associations in American society; the oldest affirmative action program in this country is the so-called "old boys' club" that gives preference to white men from the right backgrounds--that is, from wealth or connections to wealth. The United States Senate remains today largely "a millionaire's club." The only working class person of significance in this proceeding may be Anita Hill's mother, there to give her daughter support.

But wait. What about the two key witnesses, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill? Here you have two black people, both from very poor working class backgrounds. Doesn't that show something? Yes. It shows the subtlety with the politics of difference operates in the United States.

Clarence Thomas' nomination and Anita Hill's testimony and its consequences is an extended story of the ways those in power use and exploit difference. Race, class and gender are all there in Clarence Thomas' rise to this nomination and in Anita Hill's collision with him. Clarence Thomas's nomination was important to the ideology of the politics of difference because he could be packaged to represent one of the great lies those-in-power need those-without-power to believe: that the United States is a meritocracy, that the people running things are doing so because they are the best and the brightest, that it is what you know not who you know that matters.

Clarence Thomas was nominated because he could be depicted as "an African American Horatio Alger." (Horatio Alger is actually the author of a series of turn-of-the-century stories in which a poor boy makes good; but his name has come to be associated with the characters he created.) Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia, to desperately poor family. He unquestionably studied hard to go to college and Yale Law School and then into a government position as head of the Equal Opportunity Commission. His advancement in government was based certainly in part on his identification with the conservative Republican regime: "Thomas was already learning to profit from presenting himself as a witness to a conservative public from the world of 'real' African-Americans" (Stansell, 1992:261).

This presentation of self helped him get the nomination to the Supreme Court from the wealthy, white male U.S. President George Bush. Bush saw in Thomas a conservative spokesman whom he felt could not be opposed because of his race and his class background.

But then, from a feminist analysis, this picture changes if we introduce gender. The first issue of gender is not Anita Hill but Thomas' own sister, Emma Mae Martin. Emma Mae Martin's life has been very different from her brother's but her brother has not failed to capitalize on her life. Thomas used Emma Mae as an example of the kind of person welfare made dependent: "'She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check'" was one of the stock lines he used to describe his only sister as he worked a public speakers circuit (cited in Stansell, 1992: 241). But as Christine Stansell (1992:261) recounts and various news reporters discovered the truth about Martin "was quite different." She finished high school in Pin Point, married, had three children and began to raise them alone after her husband left her. "While Thomas was attending Yale, she was working two minimum-wage jobs to support the family. When the aunt who raised them suffered a stroke, Martin quit her paid job to take care of her and went on welfare" (Stansell, 1992:261). Those four years were the only time on welfare in Martin's life of paid labor and family duties. In October 1991, she was working as a cook; she had for much of her life picked crabmeat. Martin had met the fate of many poor women. She had also met the family responsibilities society expects "the woman" to handle. Her brother had not had to interrupt his schooling to take care of the aunt.

Thomas was where he was for many reasons. His own effort was one. The efforts of his aunt and sister were another. The efforts of the millions of black Americans who made the Civil Rights Movement was another. The particular efforts of Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court Justice, he is nominated to succeed, are another: Marshall was the Justice who argued Brown vs. Board of Education in 1956. No matter what his abilities might be, might have been, Thomas under segregation would not have been a Supreme Court nominee. In an open letter to Thomas, African-American jurist Leon Higginbotham (1992:5) writes, "I know that you may not want to be burdened by the memory of their sacrifices. But I also know that you have no right to forget that history." The history that brought Thomas there was both personal and national--and political. The politics of difference saw him as the ideal candidate.

Gender then enters the picture again in the presence of Anita Hill. What is most striking first about the operation of the politics of difference is that Hill is not allowed to be seen as an "African American Horatio--Horatia--Alger." Yet her background reveals the same heritage of both hard work and opportunities opened by the sacrifices of others. But Hill was treated by the media powers in two ways because of her "intersectionality," as Kimberl, Crenshaw (1992:404) describes the combination of the vectors of oppression and privilege in Hill's life. Her gender was used to take away her status as a representative of her race who had succeeded; she became for all purposes "a white woman," that is a woman rather than an African American. Her race was used to cast doubt on the "sanctity" of her gender--"Black women," writes Crenshaw (1992:412-413) "[are] not expected to be chaste. . . . [M]en who assault black women are the least likely to receive jail time."

And then, finally, we saw the politics of difference operate in the way 15 wealthy, white men responded to the testimony of one middle-class black woman, in the way a wealthy white male U.S. President maneuvered to insure his nominee's success.

The ultimate proof of the politics of difference in operation is in the outcome: Clarence Thomas was confirmed and is today a Supreme Court Judge, who has said in a key ruling against affirmative action, "Government cannot make us equal" (Mauro and Lee, 1995:1A).

That is what the testimony and hearings showed. But they did something quite different and as important.

What the Testimony and Hearings Did


  • The Battle Over Meaning

Anita Hill's testimony made sexual harassment an issue men and women had to confront and debate. So what? Why is this confrontation significant? The hearings forced the American people--and perhaps people around the world--to debate the meaning of practices so widespread as to seem to many "natural"--the natural way men and women related (e.g., Griffin, 1983). The battle over the meaning of these practices is really a battle about power in American society and in the world: power over one's own body, power over another's body, power to say what a gesture means, power to define what is reasonable and unreasonable, power to control public space, power to determine the terms of interaction. The battle lines are drawn typically but not exclusively along gender lines: men tend to define these practices one way, women another--although there are important exceptions.


  • The Practices

About whether the specific events Anita Hill described did in fact occur there was much debate--discussed below in the conclusion. But about the fact that such practices did occur there was relatively little debate. Anita Hill was not seen as testifying about UFO's having taken her and Clarence Thomas into outer space. The practices Hill described concretely had been discussed by feminists for over a decade. In Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979), Catherine MacKinnon, the legal scholar who most forcefully argued that sexual harassment was a case of sexual discrimination, described the practices in question: "examples include verbal suggestions or jokes, constant leering or ogling, brushing against your body 'accidentally,' a friendly pat, squeeze or arm against you, catching you alone for a quick kiss"(1-2). Thus, Hill's testimony fell within the range of human experience. Hill testified that Thomas kept asking her to go out, would not accept no, made references to "an individual who had a very large penis and . . . used a name . . . in pornographic material," asked her to see "this woman [who] has this kind of breasts that measure this size," etc. (Phelps and Winternitz, 1994: 314-315, citing testimony from hearings).

What the hearings did was place squarely before people the issue of the meaning of those practices. Part of the effect of Hill's testimony was that the setting and characters were both dramatic and symbolic: the United States Capitol; the United States Senate; the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice, a position one holds for life; the antagonists, an attractive African-American woman and "a black Horatio Alger," seemingly people who would forever give the lie to the charge that America is a racist society; the wealthy white men who made up the Senate Judiciary Committee--power, wealth, status in one room. All this was heightened by the presence of media, a presence which many would argue Americans now need to feel that an event is "real" (Baudrillard, 1988). The media coverage meant that people could not escape the issue. The setting in the Capitol meant that people, no matter how they deride politicians, had to accept that words like "penis" and "pubic hair" had suddenly entered the realms of public policy and national debate--for better or worse.

People responded in a variety of ways to being confronted with this issue of meaning. Some stuck very close to the case at hand and simply said they did not believe Anita Hill--a stance that would seem to imply that the practices were wrong but that people perhaps did not wish to confront just how wrong. Others said that Hill was making a mountain out of molehill, that this was just office banter, that she welcomed Thomas's advances--a stance that seems to imply that these practices are acceptable. Others felt Hill was telling the truth and that Thomas should not be confirmed--a stance that seems to say that these practices exist and they are wrong. Others saw the whole ordeal as the attempt to crucify a black man--a stance that suggests the practices are wrong but also shows the depth and complexity of the politics of difference. So what is the meaning of a friendly pat, a joke with sexual innuendo, a light brush of the arm?


  • Traditional Meanings

The battle over meaning has been most frequently fought in court cases and in the media. The Hill testimony was a high moment in drama and symbolism. But if we look at one or two court cases, and consider a sample media portrayal, we can see the traditional meaning assigned to these practices and the way that assignment of meaning reflects power.

In the past, typically, and even today, frequently, the courts have upheld traditional meanings for these practices. What those meanings are can be inferred from two case examples.

In a 1990 Reston, Virginia case, a woman named Karen Kouri lost a suit of sexual harassment against her boss, James N. Todd of USLICO. Kouri was suing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and said that Todd had threatened her with loss of promotion and that the emotional stress of the situation forced her to quit her job. The judge, James C. Cacheris, agreed that Todd has paid the attentions to Kouri that she claimed. Kouri claimed that Todd insisted on giving her expensive gifts, walking her to and from ladies room and to her car, taking her home one day when she got sick and entering her bedroom against her will, visiting her in the hospital and sitting on her bed there when she asked him not to, massaging her hands when she asked him not to, etc. But Cacheris said that, "Put simply, Todd's conduct would not have interfered with a reasonable person's work performance or created an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment." Cacheris felt that Kouri had not protested to and against Todd with sufficient vigor and ruled that "The harassment in this case was not unwelcome" (Potts, 1990:C1-2).

This ruling suggests several traditional meanings: (1) women welcome such attentions--in the judge's own inimitable reasoning, "welcome harassment"; (2) conduct such as Todd's--the lavishing of attention and the demand for closeness--are not to be considered as "unreasonable," are within the norm; (3) if a woman is really upset, she will make a truly vigorous protest and will, apparently, not hesitate to quit her job.

Many of these same charges were, of course, made against Hill--that if she had really disliked what Thomas was doing so much, she would have quit her job; that her not quitting showed that she welcomed his attentions; that a reasonable person would not have been disturbed by these attentions. In Hill's case "the reasonable person" became again distorted by race; most viciously in an attack by a Harvard African-American sociologist named Orlando Patterson who charged in the October 21, 1991 New York Times that black women understood the kind of banter Thomas was engaging in with Hill and that Hill was simply pretending to be offended (see Crenshaw, 1992 for a devastating critique of Patterson).

The issue of meaning was directly at the center of a 1991 Canadian case. In the fall of 1987, the defendant in the case, Stephen Joseph McGraw, wrote letters to three cheerleaders of the Ottawa Rough Riders, a Canadian professional football team, describing sexual acts he wished to perform with them and saying "even if I have to rape you. Even if it takes me to the day I die." The facts, as in the Kouri case, were agreed upon in court. But the judge, Keith A. Flanigan of the Ottawa-Carleton District Court, sided with McGraw's attorney, that the letters were "immature and disgusting" but that "rape does not necessarily involve bodily harm." The case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which unanimously found McGraw guilty of harassment. In reaching its decision, one of the seven judges (six men and one woman, a Mr. Peter Cory raised the question, "how would that wonderful fictitious legal character, the ordinary reasonable person understand the word 'rape.'" (Sallot, 1991:D3). Cory's question probes at the heart of the power issues surrounding sexual harassment and the definition of meaning. Within the realm of traditional meanings, the reasonable man is able to do certain things which the reasonable woman is not to take offense at, but is to enjoy or understand--if, indeed, "the reasonable person" of legal presumption is ever a woman.

Media portrayals also allow what could be seen as sexual harassment to be interpreted as flirtation, as the way men and women practice courtship. For instance, in the popular Harlequin romances marketed to women readers, one message is that it is through such acts of harassment that men express affection, "notice" a woman, and move toward love. In Betty Neels' An Old-Fashioned Girl, a housekeeper and her employer are snowed in and she is rummaging in cupboards to find supplies. He enters quietly and watches as she struggles backwards out of the cupboard. She is surprised to see him:


  • "How long have you been standing there?

    "I was admiring your legs--they're charming, Patience."

    She stood before him in her dowdy clothes, pushing the hair out of her eyes. She had gone very red but she gave him a steady look. (1992:57)

Now, clearly if the woman wishes the man to admire her, then it is not harassment--but here we have, as is so often the case in these romances, the woman uncertain. We also have the woman clearly subordinate to the man. And there is always a point in nearly every Betty Neels novel in which the man announces he shall now call the woman by her first name. These are harmless practices when agreed upon by both parties. But the novels repeatedly show that it is the man who determines the agreement, makes the proverbial "first move." The flirtation is always unequal. (See Radway, 1990.)


  • The Problem of Traditional Meanings

The problem with traditional meanings is that they send debilitating messages to women and anti-social messages to men. The traditional meaning of the practices being labeled as "sexual harassment" is that those practices are acceptable, normal, natural, are simply flirtation.

But for these practices to be acceptable, the woman involved has to accept a number of negative definitions about herself and her place in the world:

  1. She has to accept that she is above all an embodied sexual object, nothing is more important about her than her sexuality and that sexuality is present in every situation. She has to accept that her embodiment--how she looks--is much more important than what she is.
  2. She has to accept that she enters and participates in the public realm only on terms dictated by the men in it and only at their pleasure. This means, of course, that she also has to accept the sexual harassment by the man in the street (e.g., Bernard and Schlaffer, 1993).
  3. She has to accept that her work is not "real" as a man's is. Her work is something she can give up at any moment as proof that she really means "no" when she says "no." The idea that she might like or need her job, might see it as a career, might--as in Hill's case and that of so many women--need a recommendation from the man who harasses her is not to be part of her equation or defense even to herself. (Of course, if she quits work over something "no reasonable person" would be upset by, she shows she is difficult to work with.)
  4. She has to accept that she is not a reasonable person, that she does not know her own mind. She has to accept that her response to these practices is "unreasonable," that she cannot take a joke.
  5. She has to accept having her concerns trivialized. At the height of the hearings The Wall Street Journal ran an article warning "Office Romance carries new risks" (Solomon, 1991). The message, of course, is that this bother Anita Hill is making will make it harder for men and women to have office romances--"to flirt"--and, thus, in the natural course of things to marry. What are men to do? If these practices are acceptable, then the message to men is dangerously anti-social and aggressive:
    1. They can determine the course of interaction in a situation. They are the ones who decide what an action means. They know the woman's mind better than she does.
    2. They have the right of control over women's bodies. It is acceptable and natural to ogle and leer. It is just being one of the boys to make comments the embarrass and degrade another human being. (And even if she objects, it is the man's right and duty to decide what the situation means.)
    3. They have to take charge precisely because women do not meet the test of "the reasonable person."
    4. They have the right to control public space: the woman's place is in the home and the man's place is where he chooses to be and has guts enough to be.

These are dangerous principles to teach any human being. The danger may be illustrated by analogy with a passage from a mystery by novelist Ruth Rendell:


  • Many people, over the years have told me they tried to kill a younger sibling . . . . Most of these children fail, but through ineptitude or timely discovery, not loss of nerve . . . . [The character I tell of] succeeded . . . It taught her something none of us should ever learn: that killing once done, may be done again. [italics mine] (Rendell, 1989: 277)

By analogy, allowing men to engage in sexual harassment sends a more general social message: that they may violate other people's space, dignity, bodies; that they do not have to accept the independence of other people's minds, that they do indeed know better. If this seems extreme, consider the 1993 New York case of Michael Curcio, who, with some buddies, participated in the rape of an unconscious woman in a New York bar; Curcio, unrepentant and even angry, charged, "Well, what did she expect? This was a gang bang. Gang bangs have been going on since the turn of the century." He was only charged with a misdemeanor and fined $750 by the male judge (USA Today, 1993: 3A). In their study of convicted rapists, Diane Scully and Joseph Mauro report one typical kind of response of convicted rapists: "Rape was a feeling of total dominance" (1994:406) Countenancing the practice of sexual harassment as "normal" or "natural" makes acts of dominance generally seem "normal" or "natural." And the desire for dominance and control of another person does not necessarily stay limited to a desire to control women or a desire to sexually harass.

It is also interesting to note that in cases in which homosexuals are accused of "flirting" with heterosexuals and heterosexuals respond violently, the courts have shown little hesitation in deciding that the homosexual was guilty of harassment. "Homosexual panic" is the name for this legal defense in which a heterosexual who has killed or badly battered a homosexual may be found not guilty because the homosexual "started it" (Sedgwick, 1990).


  • The Challenge to Traditional Meanings

Anita Hill's testimony was the most dramatic challenge in a long campaign against the traditional definition of practices of sexual harassment as just normal flirtation.

Feminists have been struggling for at least two decades to change the legal and public definition of "sexual harassment." Catherine MacKinnon in 1979 prefaced and concluded her description of the practices of sexual harassment with the fact that these actions are unwanted by the woman. The definition MacKinnon argued for then was:

Sexual harassment, most broadly defined, refers to the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power. Central to the concept of power is the use of power derived from one social sphere to lever benefits or impose deprivations in another. The major dynamic is best expressed as the reciprocal enforcement of inequalities. When one is sexual, the other material, the cumulative sanction is potent. American society legitimizes male sexual dominance of women and employer's control of workers, although both forms of dominance have limits and exceptions. Sexual harassment of women in employment is particularly clear when male superiors on the job coercively initiated unwanted sexual advances to women employees; sexual pressures by male co-workers and customers, when condoned or encouraged by employers might also be included. . . . Most feminists would expand that definition to include harassment by male co-workers or fellow students and by the proverbial "man-in-the-street." Male power and male sexual dominance are so linked and so taken-for-granted that gender difference creates inequality in almost all situations. The woman employer walking to her car late at night with a male subordinate knows that he has the advantage of sexual dominance should he choose to use it and that while they are alone her employment position is of little worth; the female student learns the same thing with respect to fellow male students. When the male, as is often the case, is also the supervisor or teacher, the conflict is absolutely unequal.

Thus, sexual harassment may be defined as the unwanted sexual advances by one in a superior position--if we add the caveat that maleness is always granted superiority to femaleness.

That definition is correct but does not fully address the issues of power and meaning at the heart of the struggle over sexual harassment, at the heart of the Anita Hill testimony, at the heart of people's passionate and troubles responses to it. Agreeing to accept the idea that certain practices constitute sexual harassment is agreeing to accept certain ideas about power: (1) that men have more power than women; (2) that men should not have more power than woman; (3) that men and women should be equally empowered. These ideas are threatening. They threaten the system of gender and gender is one of the ways people know who they are. They threaten because they suggest that injustice can triumph, is triumphing right now everyday in the United States. And that fact in itself suggests that we, all of us, ought to do something about it.

The response to Anita Hill's testimony in October 1991 was a response to the possibility of injustice and inequality triumphing. In a brilliant analysis of media coverage of the hearings, Wahneema Lubiano (1992) shows how The New York Times in various ways tried to show the hearing process as fair and equal. She takes as one example the famous pictures run on October 12 of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas each being sworn into testify. The pictures taken at face value, Lubiano interprets, suggest equality under the law. But in point of fact Anita Hill was one lone woman, whom the Senate Judiciary Committee had tried not to call to testify, matched against the power of the White House and the fifteen male Senators who became her judges--none of whom had probably ever been sexually harassed. And further, this was not about two black people who had risen to prominence but about the ways a white power establishment could try to manipulate the politics of difference. The Times pictures were meant to reassure the public that justice was working.

The public at first responded to the possibility of injustice by choosing not to believe Anita Hill; but over time, people have adjusted to the more terrible possibility--that she was and is telling the truth. Two Newsweek (1992) polls show the following change of opinion in answer to the question, "Do you think Anita Hill was sexually harassed by Justice Thomas, as she charged?" In October 1991, only 27% of the women polled believed Hill; in December 1992, 51% of the women polled believed Hill.

These differences can be explained in terms of numerous social science findings. People sometimes identify with the powerful oppressor because they are afraid and wish to believe that the person in power is not as bad as they fear (Adorno, et.al., 1950). People do not like to be confronted with cognitive dissonance, two ideas that cannot both be true; if Anita Hill told the truth, the United States Senate should not have confirmed Clarence Thomas but the United States Senate did confirm Clarence Thomas (Festinger, 1962). Americans do not like to define themselves as victims. Nearly every social science measure of "mental health" or "maturity" distinguishes between the healthy person who checks the response "I usually feel in charge of my life" and the neurotic who says "I have been a victim" (see for example, Claussen, 1991). But people are also capable of what social scientists call reflection. Reflection is the ability to look not at your action but at yourself doing the acting--that is, it is the ability to "stop and think" about how you feel or how you felt at a given moment as a given thing was happening to you. These changes in polls may show that many women reflected on their experiences and found that they could face and name them--they too had been sexually harassed. If you have been hit by a drunk driver, it is not a sign of good mental health to say, "It was my fault; I should not have been on the sidewalk at that moment; I am in charge of my life." Surely maturity is the ability to reflect honestly and to name when one is at fault and when one is a victim--and to know the difference. The changes in the polls, even the angry responses of the Senators who "grilled" her, show that what Anita Hill said resonated--it could not be "laughed out of court."

These changes are significant because they suggest that Anita Hill's action in"speaking truth to power" inspired other people, especially perhaps women, to speak truth to their own consciousness. It would seem that the cases of the Navy Tailhook scandal and the resignation of Robert Packwood from United States Senate, among many that have surfaced to national attention since Anita Hill testified, are proof that she was speaking truth to power. They are also proof that power is still overwhelmingly white and male and wealthy and will remain so unless those of us who are not all these things find a way to speak our own truth and have it heard.

History 122
HIST 122 Syllabus

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