The year was 1991. George Herbert Walker Bush was the president of the United States. Joe Biden served as chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. And Anita Hill was a young Yale Law School graduate and law professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Bush had seen fit to appoint The (dis-)Honorable Clarence Thomas, a former Yale Law School graduate himself and chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the Supreme Court as an associate justice of that august body.
The U.S. Senate had the constitutional obligation to perform its advise and consent role on the Thomas appointment, within its authority granted under Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution. Coincidentally, this is the same provision that today has President Barack Obama’s replacement of deceased Associate Justice Antonin Scalia held up in the U.S. Senate.
The Thomas appointment was, to say the least, highly contentious. Enter the national stage young Hill, who was sought out by the Senate Judiciary Committee to speak to Thomas’ “character and fitness to serve” as a Supreme Court jurist.
Facing the unrelenting national media glare, Hill was a reluctant witness, to say the least. She was more than content to stay out of the national spotlight surrounding the Thomas confirmation hearings.
Simply said, without regard to her professional and personal well-being, Hill spoke truth to power and accused Thomas of multiple events of sexual harassment and conduct unworthy of one seeking to be appointed to the highest court in the land.
Hill will visit the Valley on Monday, when she will be presented with University of California, Merced’s prestigious Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance.
During a time when a candidate for president of the United States shrugs off his earlier boastful comments of committing sexual battery as mere “locker-room banter” people should come see for themselves what real courage looks like in the person of professor Anita Hill.
Ultimately, the judiciary committee and the full Senate chose to confirm Thomas, despite the damning testimony of Hill and other women. This historical event is captured in the docudrama “Confirmation” starring Kerry Washington, of “Scandal” television series fame, who masterfully portrays Hill.
Hill’s decision to speak out against unconscionable treatment at the hands of someone as powerful as Thomas – her former boss and mentor – has empowered a new generation of women to speak out when they experience sexual harassment in the workplace or on our university campuses.
The fastest growth in reported sexual misconduct cases is coming from our college campuses. With the ominous shadow cast by the recent Stanford University sexual misconduct case, one wonders if a whole new generation of young women will be reluctant to speak truth to their university hierarchy in reporting inappropriate treatment at the hands of faculty members or fellow students.
In the Stanford case, a former member of the men’s swim team was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious female student and served only three months in the county jail, as opposed to a more appropriate, lengthier sentence in state prison.
Will that modest sentence silence young women under similar circumstances in the future?
Hill’s example of courage is one to be modeled both by the young women and the young men in our families. It should be stressed that sexual harassment is not only a “women’s” problem. Injustice toward one is an injustice toward all.
During these unprecedented political times, Hill remains a champion and role model for those encouraging others, particularly our young people, to speak truth to power.
Mark T. Harris is a continuing lecturer and director of pre-law studies at UC Merced.
Anita Hill speaks in Merced on Monday
When: Monday, Oct. 24, 6-7:30 p.m.
Why: UC Merced’s Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance
Where: Art Kamanger Center at the Merced Theatre
Address: 301 W Main St., Merced, CA 95340.