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 Clarence Thomas, a former Yale Law School graduate 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 in reviewing the Thomas appointment, within its authority under Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution. Coincidentally, this is the same provision used by the Senate today to hold up President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.
The Thomas appointment was, to say the least, highly contentious.
That’s when young Anita Hill entered the state. She had been sought out by the Senate Judiciary Committee to speak to Thomas’ character and “fitness to serve” as a Supreme Court jurist.
Hill was a reluctant witness under the unrelenting national media glare, more than content to stay out of the national spotlight.
But without regard to her professional and personal well-being, Hill spoke truth to power. She accused Thomas of multiple episodes of sexual harassment and conduct unworthy of one seeking to be appointed to the nation’s highest court.
Hill will visit Merced on Monday to be presented with UC Merced’s prestigious Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance. Her visit culminates in a 6 p.m. ceremony, open to the public, in the Art Kamanger Center at the Merced Theatre.
During a time when a candidate for president shrugs off his earlier boastful comments of committing sexual battery as mere “locker-room banter,” people should see for themselves what real courage looks like in the person of professor 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, the star of the series “Scandal.”
Hill’s decision to speak out against despicable 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 university campuses.
The fastest growth in reported sexual misconduct cases is coming from college campuses. The recent assault of an unconscious woman at Stanford University resulted in a sentence of only six months, of which only three months were served. Such a light sentence might make a new generation of young women reluctant to come forward after suffering inappropriate treatment at the hands of faculty members or fellow students.
In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2888 that strengthened penalties against anyone convicted of rape or sexual assault of an unconscious victim.
Hill’s example of courage provides a model for young people, a model that the Stanford victim followed by reading a victim’s statement in court at the time of sentencing.
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 young people, to speak truth to power.
Mark T. Harris is a continuing lecturer and director of Pre-Law Studies at University of California, Merced. He wrote this for the Merced Sun-Star.