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What has changed since Anita Hill? Female senators who were there weigh in.

Why We Wrote This

History often gives us some perspective on progress. Two former US senators offer their view of Anita Hill’s testimony before Congress in 1991, and the lessons for Kavanaugh hearings today.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Counsel Charles Ogletree uses a legal pad to cover a microphone as he advises law professor Anita Hill during her testimony on Oct. 11, 1991 before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

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On a weekend in October of 1991, more than 20 million American households watched as Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. In her testimony, Ms. Hill, a law professor, described numerous instances of Mr. Thomas using inappropriate sexual language and making unwanted overtures when she worked for him in the 1980s. Thomas denied any wrongdoing. In the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm him. At the time of the hearings, there were exactly two women in the US Senate: Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican from Kansas, and Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. Both women, now retired from the Senate, spoke to the Monitor about what has changed since then, and what lessons those hearings hold for consideration of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh today. “The Senate should take its time,” says Mikulski, who urges a thorough investigation of charges that have surfaced from a woman alleging Mr. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when he was about 17 years old. Kassebaum says the Senate should try to resolve the unanswered questions but “better do it quietly and quickly.”

On a weekend in October of 1991, more than 20 million American households watched as Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. In her testimony, Ms. Hill, a law professor, described numerous instances of Mr. Thomas using inappropriate sexual language and making unwanted overtures when she worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s. Thomas denied any wrongdoing and famously described the proceedings as a “high-tech lynching.” In the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm him. At the time of the hearings, there were exactly two women in the United States Senate: Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican from Kansas, and Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. Senator Kassebaum eventually voted to confirm Thomas, while Senator Mikulski voted against. Both women, now retired from the Senate, spoke to the Monitor about their recollections of those hearings, what has changed in the years since, and how to proceed as current Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faces allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman when he was about 17 years old. Below is a transcript of their remarks, edited for clarity.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Former US Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker (R) of Kansas, looks to the stage during 'A Century of Service' honoring former US Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Howard Baker (her husband), in Washington on March 21, 2012.

On looking back at the Thomas-Hill hearings:

Nancy Kassebaum Baker: I remember it was late, and I was getting ready to leave the office, and Paul Simon [the Democratic senator from Illinois] called, and he said: ‘Nancy, there’s going to be something coming up that will make a huge difference.’ I said ‘really!’ [chuckles].

Then, it was the next weekend and I was going to a Kansas State football game. And I got there and was walking through the parking lot where everybody was tailgating, and everyone was listening to that hearing. Then I walked on into the stadium, and people are saying, ‘Hey Nancy, how are you going to vote?’ ‘I don’t know!’

Barbara Mikulski: The so-called hearings turned into a spectacle. It was not a hearing. It became a trial. Professor Hill – and everything about Professor Hill – went on trial. Her character; her mental stability was called into question. We cannot have that. The American people will not tolerate that. The American people already have a great deal of skepticism about our institutions and the function they perform.

What we have here, that we didn’t have then, is greater knowledge of the topic, because when I was in the Senate [then], there was only one other woman, Senator Kassebaum. We were not on the Judiciary Committee, though I spoke of the need for Professor Hill to be heard. I want Professor [Christine Blasey] Ford to be heard. I want the rights of Judge Kavanaugh to be preserved.

On lessons learned and how to proceed now:

Kassebaum: I think [Hill] herself was a person that you’d respect, that I would respect. I think it would have been different if there had been a full hearing originally, and all of this hadn’t happened at the last [minute]. I think that would have raised a lot of questions that probably should have been more reflected on – [such as] how Thomas would handle issues that were sensitive. 

When it gets into something like this, all senators need to think about exactly how to handle it. And better to do it quietly and quickly – and find out why there seems to be such confusion. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. [On both sides] there seems to be something that isn’t quite right.

Mikulski: This is a lifetime appointment, and the Senate needs to do its job. It needs to do it with due diligence, and the rules of engagement that follow due process and propriety. 

I truly believe that before there is a hearing, there should be an investigation of [Professor Ford’s] allegation, and it should be done by appropriate authorities – and in this case, it would be the FBI. Then when the FBI has completed its investigation, there should be a hearing, under oath, in which both Judge Kavanaugh and Professor Ford say what they wanted to bring to the Senate, and then any professional and corroborating witnesses should be called up.

The Senate should take its time. The deadlines that are being imposed are artificial. This is an advise-and-consent process. The Senate is constitutionally bound to do the best that it can.

The allegations are indeed quite grave, and it warrants this process. There should be very clear rules of engagement that are established for the hearing, so that Professor Ford is treated with dignity and respect, and that Judge Kavanaugh’s rights, as the accused, are also preserved. There are many things that need to be evaluated about Judge Kavanaugh. First of all, his truthfulness. And if he lies about this – this is why you need a thorough investigation. We need to get to the facts and to get to the fitness. It’s not about the fitness of Professor Ford. It’s about the fitness of Judge Kavanaugh to have a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.

On the broader change in society, on issues like sexual harassment:

Kassebaum: It has advanced by leaps and bounds. I have a strong belief – and I said when was I was first elected – I was not elected to be a woman senator, I was elected to be a senator. I’ve had women say, ‘Yes, but you’ve never been put in a position where your job might be at stake if you didn’t do what they want you to do and you were being badgered by a man.’ And that’s true. You’d like to think you’d say ‘get out of here,’ and walk out. But that’s not fair to say, because I’ve never been placed in a situation like that. And I would hope none of my granddaughters are either.

But it’s grown now to the point where I wonder if the men are going to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, sometimes there are two sides to these stories.’ And it can get blown out [of proportion] so quickly by the press.

Mikulski: I’m disappointed that we’re here again. There are a lot of similar dynamics, but we are in a different world. We’re in a different Senate, we’re in a different judiciary committee. At the time of Professor Hill, the Senate as a whole – and society as a whole – had very little understanding of issues around sexual harassment, sexual assault, etc. [The hearing] caused an outcry and an outrage among women and many of the men who support women’s equality, and also who support a constitutional process that should be conducted with the highest standards of dignity. The results were that we got more women [in the Senate]. There were lessons learned about sexual harassment.

On women in the Senate today:

Kassebaum: Women are much more assertive. [Having four women on the Judiciary Committee] makes a difference – because they spoke up. Any time I heard them, I thought they were on the whole pretty good.

I was never a particularly great speaker. But as I’ve watched women in the Senate now, I think some try to overcompensate for having a quieter voice – they tend to get louder.

Look at how they handled Al Franken from Minnesota [when he was accused of sexual misconduct]. He said, I’m sorry I’m going to step down – but [other Democrats] were quick to bring judgment against him. So, I think women are certainly more willing to step forward.

Where I think women are exceptionally able to make a difference is, they are good at negotiating. They are good at thinking through how to reach compromises. And I think it is a quality that women bring, that is of great value, particularly today, when things are so contentious.

Mikulski: The public humiliation of Anita Hill caused such an outrage among women, and also the good men who were just horrified at the way she was treated, that it resulted in a tremendous number of women running for the Senate and other elected offices, and winning.

The women in the Senate work on the macro issues, and they work on the macaroni-and-cheese issues. So they work on the big pictures of national security, economic security, and they also work on how those big issues also affect the family. For example, the women in the Senate want to make sure we have the appropriate veterans’ benefits, but also to make sure that prosthetic devices in the VA fit women.

The fact there are now a significant number of Democratic women, and also our Republican colleagues, we can now be on every committee, because we, the women in the Senate, think that every issue is a woman’s issue.

 

Alex Brandon/AP
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland talks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Nov. 16, 2016, before a caucus organizing meeting to elect their leadership for the 115th Congress.

On today’s political environment, the upcoming midterms, and the Trump effect

Kassebaum: I personally think both parties need a real shaking up, and I think that’s coming – and coming more quickly, maybe, to the Democrats than to the Republicans.

I did vote for Hillary, but a lot of my friends didn’t. They said ‘we don’t like Trump but will not vote for Hillary Clinton.’ That’s my Republican friends. If there had been another [Democratic] candidate against Trump, I’m not sure he would have won.

I think it’s a changing time. I have to say, I’m right in the middle of Trump country, amid farmers and ranchers. I love to josh with them. I say, ‘I don’t understand what you see in President Trump.’ What has bothered them are the tariffs and the trade issue, because that’s hurting farming. [But] they believe that he’s shaking things up and getting something done. 

Mikulski: I’m so proud of the women that are running, and what I’m excited about is not only the women that are running for Congress, and for statewide office like governor, but the increased pipeline of women running at the local level – for city council, like where I got started, and for state senate or state rep in their own states. This isn’t just an event, this isn’t a just a one-shot deal. We’re building a pipeline of representation.

Also what I’m excited about is the significant number of women of color that are running, and there’s a new phenomenon of veterans that are running – men and women.

I’m looking forward to the blue wave. I do think a blue wave is coming, and I think it does wear lipstick and high heels, but it also wears camo. After every war, there were people who were called. And now we have a whole new generation coming, only this time they have names like Joni and Tammy and so on, and we’re going to hope that as they work, that they will also remember that our job is to serve the nation, and that our oath is to the Constitution, and to be making government work as best as it can.

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