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Opinion | Jill Abramson

Has anything changed since 1991?

From left: Senators Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, Dianne Feinstein, and Patrick Leahy of the Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Hatch, Grassley, and Leahy were all on the committee in 1991.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing will be the ultimate test of whether the #MeToo movement has really changed the way Washington deals with sexual misconduct charges, when a Supreme Court seat is at stake. The Judiciary Committee faces the biggest challenge because it failed so abysmally a generation ago when it called another previously unknown female professor to testify about painful, long-ago sexual harassment.

I was there in 1991 when Anita Hill, wearing that unforgettable blue dress, sat down before her all-white, all-male inquisitors on the judiciary panel. It’s still hard for me to watch footage of the first minutes of those hearings because I know what is about to happen to her. In front of her family she was ripped to pieces. She had expected simply to recount her story and assumed, going in, that because she told the truth she would be believed. She felt a “duty to report,” given the importance of confirmation proceedings for a lifetime seat on the court. Initially, she had not wanted to step forward, but she did.


There are so many striking similarities between Anita Hill’s story so long ago and what now confronts her modern-day doppelganger, Christine Blasey Ford. Anita Hill didn’t really stand a chance when she testified against Clarence Thomas. A Republican White House and its allies on the Judiciary Committee were determined to win at all costs. Although she had a team of hastily amassed pro bono lawyers, she didn’t have any idea what she was up against. With the prospect of losing the nomination of an avowedly conservative justice slipping away, the Republicans were willing to stoop to any low tactic in order to destroy Hill’s credibility.

I hope Ford has studied up on this wicked history. It must have weighed on her mind as she wrestled with whether to step forward and allow her identity to be known. She had quaked at the prospect of going public against Brett Kavanaugh, whom she says tried to sexually assault her when they were in high school in the Washington, D.C., area. Like Hill, she was probably torn and scared about stepping forward. Like Hill, she probably felt it her duty as a citizen to provide searing, painfully personal information about an encounter that casts doubt on the moral fitness of the nominee.


There are many people who say times have changed since 1991, and that Democrats on the Judiciary Committee won’t let Ford be mauled again by the Republicans. Back in 1991, the Democrats were cowed and failed to protect Hill. Can Ford depend on them to be stronger this time? I’m not so sure.

It’s true that the makeup of the Senate has changed. There were only two women there in 1991. There are 23 now. Hill’s savaging, which outraged women voters, helped elect some of them, including Dianne FeinsteinCQ, now the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. It’s disappointing that Feinstein did not push harder to get Ford’s allegations investigated earlier, but she should now play a vital role in making sure she gets a fair hearing. I hope Ford can also count on Amy KlobucharCQ, Kamala HarrisCQ, and Mazie HironoCQ, who were all aggressive in questioning Kavanaugh in the first round of hearings. So were some of the other Democrats on the committee, especially Cory BookerCQ.


They will have to be extremely tough and strategic, something the Democrats were not in 1991, even though Democrats then controlled the Senate. Conservatives have been salivating for years about getting Brett Kavanaugh a seat on the Court. He is a darling of the Federalist Society, a jurist whose right-wing credentials are sterling and beyond doubt. Despite his refusal to be pinned down on any issues during the first set of confirmation hearings, there is little doubt about how he will cast most of his votes. He’s been a reliable champion of corporate America. He will move the Court in a decidedly more conservative direction on nearly all issues, including those that most heavily impact women. His supporters will do anything to save this nomination — even if it means destroying Ford.

Two Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, chairman Charles GrassleyCQ and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, were there in 1991. Hatch played an especially evil part in the proceedings, berating Hill for plagiarizing her allegations from old lawsuits mentioning a porn star named Long Dong Silver. He also sent staff lawyers into the bowels of D.C. libraries who found what Hatch then used as a lethal bullet: a passage from the novel “The Exorcist” mentioning public hair floating in a glass of gin. Hill had testified that Thomas once asked her who had put a pubic hair on his Coke can. These trumped-up attacks on Hill’s credibility were nonsense, of course, but the strategy worked.

Get ready for these same low tactics to be used against Ford. Hatch has already started spinning about Ford, conjecturing that there’s “some question” whether she is “mixed up” and confusing Kavanaugh with someone else. I almost lose my breath when I try to imagine her entering that hearing room on Monday. It may be the #MeToo era, when we’re supposed to believe victims. But Washington is still Washington, and when power is at stake, the men in control are not going to let a lone female accuser stand in their way.

Jill Abramson is a senior lecturer at Harvard, where she teaches journalism, and is former executive editor of The New York Times. She is the author, with Jane Mayer, of “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.”