Who could have guessed this would happen again? That the imminent confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee would be upended by an allegation of sexual misconduct, setting up a potential showdown in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a cultural flashpoint in an already polarized nation?
Anita Hill did.
The law professor whose 1991 allegations of sexual harassment by a Supreme Court nominee foreshadowed the scene now playing out in Washington had long ago urged the Senate to establish a protocol to better assess sexual misconduct claims that emerge during the confirmation process. It didn’t.
In her first interview since a sexual assault allegation emerged against Brett M. Kavanaugh, Hill said that the Senate is no better prepared to vet claims against a nominee today than it was 27 years ago.
“Today — especially now, after last year’s revelations about what women were experiencing in the workplace in 2017 — it seems to me that’s just another wakeup call,” Hill said. “The Senate and House have both seen what happened when these issues are ignored. They don’t just go away. There need to be systems in place to respond.”
The landscape has changed, of course. In 1991, when Hill was testifying, people could barely define sexual harassment. Now, nearly a year into the #MeToo movement — as legions of women have divulged stories of sexual harassment or assault, resulting in men being ousted from positions of power — the issue is at the forefront of many people’s minds.
“We do — in 2018 — get it,” said Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University. “Whether our systems have actually come together to respond to that is another question.”
Hill began pushing for a clearer process for evaluating allegations shortly after her grueling appearance before the committee, which heard her testimony about her former boss, Clarence Thomas, and then confirmed him to the Supreme Court.
Among her suggestions: The senators should ask a neutral party to investigate the allegation and frame their questions around the investigators’ conclusions and experts’ advice, rather than politics or myths about sexual assault.
Twenty-seven years ago, the lurid spectacle of Hill’s interrogation on sexual matters by an all-male panel of senators inflamed women’s sense of injustice and fueled political candidacies in the following election year, dubbed The Year of the Woman.
The prospect of a similar grilling is politically fraught in 2018, when a record number of female candidates are already running in the midterm elections.
Hill found her own credibility and reputation on trial during Thomas’s confirmation hearings, where the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee tested her account of sexual harassment. The optics now are slightly different — four women serve on the committee — but it’s unclear how the committee members will handle the limelight, as the #MeToo movement suddenly threatens a conservative nominee who seemed to be sailing to confirmation.
“One hypothesis would be, we’re in the #MeToo moment so all the men are going to be cautious about how they talk about this,” said Kelly Dittmar, project director at Gender Watch 2018, a nonpartisan project launched by the Center for American Women and Politics and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation to analyze gender dynamics through the 2018 election cycle. “But there are certainly politicians who have instead been saying . . . ‘This is unfair, an overreaction, an overcorrection.’ ”
“If they’re perceived as treating her in a disrespectful and/or sexist way, as many would say Anita Hill was treated, do they actually fear the repercussions of that?” Dittmar continued. “Or is their voting base so strongly oriented to them that they’re actually not very concerned about how it comes across? My guess is that you’ll get a mix.”
In an opinion piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, Hill wrote that the senators in 1991 “performed in ways that gave employers permission to mishandle workplace harassment complaints throughout the following decades.”
While some senators grilled or dismissed Hill, former vice president Joe Biden, who led the Senate Judiciary Committee during Thomas’s nomination, was criticized for failing to protect Hill from hostile questioning and failing to allow four women to testify in her support.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement last year, Biden, a Democrat, said he owed Hill an apology.
Hill said she has never heard from Biden personally — but that the apology is not due to her alone.
“He owes all of us an apology,” she said. “He owes the country an apology because the affront was not just to me. It was really a disservice to every one of us — not just on behalf of sexual harassment victims but also on behalf of those people who believe in the integrity of the court and that it should be protected by the Senate, whose role is to advise on judicial nominations.”
Hill has little comfort to offer Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh in high school. As many as 60 percent of those who file sexual harassment complaints face retaliation, Hill said.
“[Her] life will very likely be changed in very difficult ways after this,” she said. “There used to be this talk that it’s easy to raise a claim like this and it’s hard to defend against it. Well, it isn’t easy to raise it, and the repercussions are ongoing.”
Kavanaugh has denied Ford’s allegation. Hill encouraged the judiciary committee — and the public — to reject the idea that the truth is unknowable if the key parties disagree on their accounts. Facts can be unearthed, if given the time.
“We cannot continue to say it’s just a ‘he said, she said,’ ” Hill said. “I just reject the idea that it’s just going to come down to her word against his.”
Hill said she will not be upset if Ford is believed, 27 years after she was not. That is, in fact, her hope.
“My desire from this is to have her experience heard, taken seriously, the facts that she raises about her experience considered in light of the nature of the appointment that we’re talking about,” Hill said. “The integrity of the court is on the line here. It does none of us any good to have a shadow over our highest court in the country.”Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.