Newsweek Champions Anita Hill 'Surviving Clarence'

Newsweek isn't shy about taking sides in celebrating the anniversary of Anita Hill's unsubstantiated claims of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. Their I-believe-Anita article is titled "Surviving Clarence." The author is feminist Leslie Bennetts -- a woman who's previously puffed Arianna Huffington as the "ultimate poster girl for change" and has even proclaimed that women who stay home to raise their children are "playing Russian roulette with their future."

Conservatives and Thomas supporters were denounced as vile demonizers of this feminist icon, but Bennetts couldn't find a conservative who would speak up. Former Sen. Arlen Specter told Bennetts he was still quite sure he was right to suggest Hill may have committed perjury, no matter how angry that made liberals. Hill, however, was asked if she suffered post-traumatic stress, as if she'd spent a weekend in a war zone instead of a hearing room:

Calm and as cheerful as her bright tomato-red cardigan, Anita Hill smiles wryly when asked if she suffered from posttraumatic stress after testifying at Justice Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, where she was pilloried for revealing the way she said he behaved as her boss in two different jobs.

“It was traumatic,” acknowledges Hill, who teaches public policy, law, and women’s studies at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. “It hurt, and it hurt people I cared about. But I was determined not to be defeated by people who tried to make me out to be something I wasn’t.”

But Hill refused to succumb. “I really want to have a good life; I want to have a life that’s worthwhile and meaningful. Being consumed by anger is inconsistent with the goals I have for my life,” says Hill, who grew up in poverty on an Oklahoma farm as the youngest of 13 children. “But of course I’m angry. I’m angry with him, I’m angry with the senators—I’m probably less angry than I was 10 years ago, but it’s still there. I think we let go of anger bit by bit. To me, the best way to do that is to think about what my contribution can be, to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people. The larger goal is both gender equality and racial equality, because both racism and sexism contributed to my being victimized. But I don’t want to walk around being angry all the time. It’s not constructive.”

After rushing through a few specifics of the Hill-Thomas hearings, Bennetts returned to how the whole spectacle was somehow not an opportunity to trash Thomas with unproven charges he was a pervert and harasser. It was a shocking example of right-wing demonization:

In response, the Senate Judiciary Committee interrogated Hill with a ferocity that shocked even political veterans, impugning everything from her competence to her sanity to her sexuality. Like a horrifyingly mismatched gladiatorial contest pitting a powerful gang of well-armed men against a woman with no defense save her own account of what someone had done to her against her will, the televised hearings mesmerized the nation. Many female observers were aghast at the way Hill was bullied and demeaned by the committee, whose members seemed both hostile and clueless about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The senators were horrible,” says Ellen Bravo, the former executive director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, and author of The 9to5 Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment. “They were all white and all male, and their questions ranged from insensitive to horrific. They were at best ignorant, and at worst maliciously inclined to discredit her.”

Notice in this long article, there was no space for an example of "ferocious" interrogation, as if Hill was waterboarded. At the time, liberals were furious at what Republicans said after Hill left, not during her appearance.

Justice Thomas denied Hill’s allegations, preemptively refused to answer questions about “what goes on in the sanctity of my bedroom,” and accused those who opposed him of engaging in “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”

After Thomas was confirmed, a right-wing smear campaign continued to portray Hill as a man-hater, a crusading leftist, a feminist zealot, a spurned woman bent on revenge, and a delusional spinster unhinged by thwarted lust for her former boss, among other slurs—a “deranged liar,” as author David Brock wrote later in recounting the ways he distorted the truth in his bestseller The Real Anita Hill, a hatchet job that memorably described the reserved Hill as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”

Earth to liberals: please find those words in the actual Brock book. (They're in the original American Spectator article by Brock, but not in the book. Facts, schmacts?) Bennetts, like the other liberal journalists portrayed Hill as paying a "price" instead of having a multi-million-dollar payday in a book deal:

For Hill, the price was steep. A law professor at the University of Oklahoma, she became the target of what she describes as “an effort to drive me out,” and she ultimately left her job and her community. [She went to teach at prestigious Brandeis University. As if she was thrown out on the street without a million dollars to keep her warm....]

Women’s-rights advocates initially viewed the whole debacle as a disastrous setback for the nation as well. “When Hill was not believed, the feeling was that this would cause fewer people to report sexual harassment,” says Gloria Steinem. “But what happened was the reverse, because she had opened up the subject. Women began to talk to each other and discovered that this had happened to many other women, so it turned out to be a huge national teach-in on sexual harassment.”

Hill’s courage also inspired countless other victims. “Her dignity, composure, and credibility were stunning. Women thought, ‘She stood up to this, and maybe I can too,’” says Catharine MacKinnon, the pioneering legal scholar who argued in the 1970s that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, establishing the framework used by the EEOC in adopting its 1980 guidelines prohibiting such misconduct.

Sexual-harassment complaints filed with the EEOC increased by 50 percent in the year following the hearings—and that was only the beginning. “Women’s willingness to come forward and file sexual-harassment complaints doubled in the five years after that,” Hill says.

Although Brock called Hill “the Rosa Parks of sexual harassment,” she is characteristically restrained in discussing her contribution to history. “There’s still a lot of sexual harassment in the workplace, but I think there is a greater awareness now, and a better understanding among employers about how sexual harassment affects the ability of women to perform their work,” she says. “I don’t think the arc of progress is steady, but I do think it is moving in the right direction, and we have to continue to insist.”

Bennetts concluded the article by insisting (with backup from CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin) that somehow, every fact that's emerged since 1991 has backed up Hill's unproven story -- and let's ignore that a large majority of Americans believed Thomas when the hearings ended. The article ends with Hill lecturing Thomas as someone who shouldn't be able to sleep at night:

As the anniversary of Hill’s trial by fire approaches, she seems more sorrowful than vengeful toward her former nemesis. “I am disappointed that Thomas could not rise above his behavior at any point, whether when he was harassing me or when he was nominated or when he wrote his book—that he could not become a bigger person,” she says. “To me, he’s a tragic character—because he’s angry, because he’s in a powerful position in our country in deciding people’s lives, and because I don’t think he can be objective in many of the cases. And that has an impact on the law, on people’s lives, and on how people see the court.”

She pauses, and then adds quietly, “I am glad I don’t have to deal with his conscience. I can sleep at night knowing I told the truth.”

That has given her peace of mind, and her own efforts have earned her the “good life” she set as her goal. As our conversation ends, Hill even permits herself a gentle smile, albeit one with no hint of defiance, triumph, or even visible pride in what she has overcome. To her, it’s just a simple statement of fact.

“I’m not broken,” she says.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis