More than a quarter century ago, a university professor named Anita Hill was abused, shamed, and ignored by the U.S. Senate—just for having the courage to go before the Judiciary Committee and describe how she’d been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
I know because I was at that hearing. My organization, Alliance for Justice, played a role in bringing Professor Hill’s story to light, by alerting the Senate Judiciary Committee to her experiences and ability to corroborate what had been widely whispered, but not validated, about Clarence Thomas. I also remember the pain and the outrage that women felt at the way Professor Hill was treated, and I want very much to believe that such a thing would not happen again in today’s #MeToo era.
Because here we are again, with allegations that bear a sad similarity to Hill’s—even as they also display stark differences. Again, we have a woman making the excruciating decision to come forward with a report of sexual misdeeds on the part of a Supreme Court nominee; again, the report comes as we are swiftly nearing the end of the confirmation process; and again, the forces of conservatism—and the all-male Republican membership of the Judiciary Committee—are seemingly arrayed against her.
But the differences are important too: The survivor has described a violent attack that would certainly qualify as a criminal sexual assault, and we are in a very different cultural moment, the #MeToo era. Such is the background against which Palo Alto and Stanford University Professor Christine Blasey Ford has risked everything, overcoming her emotional anguish to talk publicly about that horrible night in high school when she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
I believe her.
It’s hard enough hearing one more account of a woman who has lived with pain for decades. What makes it worse is how the White House and the Senate keep acting like it’s 1991 all over again. Back then, three women were ready to come forward and confirm Anita Hill’s story—but were denied the opportunity. Senator Orrin Hatch called Hill’s testimony “contrived” and suggested that she drew it from the book The Exorcist.
The mistreatment of Anita Hill set the stage for the decades of character assassination she has had to endure since. Twenty-seven years later, Hatch is still on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And now he calls Ford “mixed up” without having even met or talked with her—while giving Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt of being “honest” and “straightforward.”
The Senate Boys Club is alive and well. When Ford’s claims first appeared, Hatch vowed, “I do not intend to allow Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation to be stalled.” Now that Ford has volunteered to testify, let’s see how she is treated. A hearing has been set for her and Kavanaugh to testify in the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 24. Will she be treated with respect? Will there be any process of investigation by the FBI, either before or after, and will the people who could corroborate her story be sought out? (She told her story to her husband and a therapist years ago.)
In other words, will the Senate carry out its constitutional duty? No one is entitled to a Supreme Court seat. Will the Senate actually investigate an allegation of sexual assault against someone who might be given enormous power over women’s freedoms and over all of our lives? These senators and the American people are facing a critical test. This is the moment when we must demonstrate that #MeToo is more than just a Twitter hashtag: It’s a serious pledge, long overdue, that women who have endured decades of harassment and assault will finally be taken seriously.
So call off this confirmation madness. Even without these fresh allegations, hundreds of thousands of pages of documents about Kavanaugh have been withheld or ignored, and this process was inappropriately begun with huge gaps in his known record.
At some point, partisan politics has to take a back seat to the Constitution—and if that’s not enough to persuade the politicians, maybe a dose of realism will do the trick. Senators tempted to treat Ford unfairly ought to remember how their treatment of Hill helped lead to 1992 becoming the “Year of the Woman.” Democratic senators like Alan Dixon of Illinois and Wyche Fowler of Georgia who stuck with Clarence Thomas lost their seats. Record numbers of women were swept into office. As the next chapter in this chaotic drama unfolds, every woman in America will be watching.