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Column: The pioneering voice


There’s no denying that the public barrage of accusations about sexual misconduct in the workplace has been startling to behold.

Even if you’re not a news junkie, you have to be impressed — if not alarmed — by the scope of the revelations and the prominent figures in government, media and show business who have been outed as predators.

As I write, the main focus is still on Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who’s been accused of molesting teenage girls and other acts of sexual abuse. Those allegations surfaced earlier this month several weeks after he became the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat.

Moore vehemently denies the more serious charges and has pressed on with his campaign, thumbing his nose at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. When McConnell was asked by a reporter if he believed the whistleblowers who claimed that Moore had made sexual advances on them when they were in their mid-teens, he declared without a trace of ambiguity: “I believe the women, yes.”

How refreshing it was to hear a pillar of the political establishment take such an unequivocal stand in a dispute over sexual behavior. The customary response from powerful male figures on this subject is to take refuge in the she said/he said cop-out.

That certainly was the case 26 years ago this fall when too many of the men then serving in the U.S. Senate — a heavily male bloc that included the young McConnell — were unwilling to believe the testimony they heard from a woman named Anita Hill.

For those of you who have come in late on this story, Hill was a pivotal presence in a riveting controversy that was set in motion in June 1991 when Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court. Marshall was the first African-American to sit on the high court, and no one was surprised when President George H. W. Bush nominated a black jurist, Clarence Thomas, to fill the vacancy.

But in sharp contrast to Marshall, who had been a deeply influential leader in the civil rights movement, Thomas had a reputation as a hard-line conservative. That naturally enhanced his appeal to Republicans, but it didn’t sit well with many Democrats.

At the confirmation hearings, it soon became clear that the members of the Judiciary Committee were firmly divided along party lines — seven aye votes for Thomas and seven nay votes. And it was against this contentious background that Anita Hill appeared before the committee and dropped her bombshells.

Hill was a young lawyer when she was hired by Thomas in 1981, who was then Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

She testified that during the two years Thomas was her boss, he repeatedly asked her out on dates, and when she refused, he would use work situations to discuss sexual subjects in a most offensive way.

She said that he especially liked to talk to her about lurid acts he had seen in pornographic films, such as “women having sex with animals” and films “showing group sex or rape scenes.”

On other occasions, she said, he would boast about “his own sexual prowess” and graphically describe his genitalia. And there were even worse references, the attorney testified.

Anita Hill’s testimony extended over three days, and then the nominee was given the opportunity to respond to her accusations.

When Thomas returned to the hearing room, he was loaded for bear. In furious, indignant tones, he categorically denied all her charges and castigated the Judiciary Committee for allowing her to testify.

The big moment in Thomas’s star turn came when he aggressively played the race card, claiming that he was the victim of “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves …”

And with that, the hearings soon came to an end. To get around the rigid 7-to-7 stalemate they were locked in, the members of the committee took the unusual step of sending the nomination to the floor of the Senate without a recommendation. They didn’t pass the buck so much as fling it, as if it were a live hand grenade.

The fireworks ignited by Hill’s allegations and Thomas’s rebuttals now moved into the larger arena of the Senate chamber where other partisan voices joined in the fray. And when the moment of reckoning came, Thomas squeaked through by a 52-48 vote, the narrowest margin for a Supreme Court nominee in more than a century.

From a historical perspective, it’s worth noting that the Washington culture has not been a stranger to sex scandals. The vast majority of them, however, belong in the category of what I call “conventional adultery,”  i.e., illicit affairs that can cause anxiety and heartbreak, but rarely sink into a moral abyss.

But the sordid picture of verbal harassment that Anita Hill portrayed in her 1991 testimony propelled the debate over sexual misconduct into a new and much darker realm of depravity.

It was a watershed moment, “a fire bell in the night,” to borrow a phrase that Jefferson used to describe a different moral crisis.

Even so, it has taken far too much time for most of us to recognize — much less confront — the beast in that jungle. But given the flood of accusations these past few weeks, we must now insist that having come this far, there can be no turning back.

And thanks in large part to those revelations, Anita Hill now stands fully vindicated as the great pioneering voice in the battle against sexual harassment. Still, we all have reason to regret that too many men in powerful positions failed to heed her message when she first sounded the alarm 26 years ago.