In an October 9 column for Slate, Dahlia Lithwick explained that historically, it's been very hard to be the wife of a Supreme Court justice. According to Lithwick, earlier generations of women, subjected to the forced anonymity traditionally expected of Justices' spouses, have been driven to drink, illness and despair. Some feel that explains why the wife of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas felt compelled to leave a voicemail message on the office telephone of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused him of sexual harassment during his 1991 confirmation hearing. According to the New York Times, who said Hill played the recording for them, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas said that through prayer, Hill might be led to offer an explanation and apology "for what you did with my husband."
Of course, Ginni Thomas is no cloistered spouse. She is a longtime conservative political activist who currently heads a Tea Party group called Liberty Central. She worked for former Republican congressman Dick Armey, and for the Heritage Foundation. Critics have questioned whether her political involvements raise conflicts of interest for Justice Thomas. Those concerns are heightened because Liberty Central is organized under tax rules that allow them to keep their donors secret. Law professor Sherrilyn Ifill sees a big problem here:
"As Mrs. Thomas continues to escalate her political activities and rhetoric on matters likely to come before the court, the justices of the court and commentators who study the court's practices should perhaps focus less on the individual free-speech rights of the privileged wife of a Supreme Court justice and more on the collective right of the American public and the litigants who appear before the court, and assure us that our highest court not only is impartial but also looks impartial."
Since Ginni Thomas is a political veteran, it's hard not to infer an element of calculation in the content and timing of the phone call. Of course, some critics, such as egalia from Tennessee Guerrilla Women, figure Thomas is just plumb loco. I can't pretend to know what Ginni Thomas is thinking, but I'm willing to take her at her word, that she believes her husband's professions of innocence, and she thinks Anita Hill owes them an apology.
Still, it's hard to imagine anything more offensive to Hill, who is now a professor at Brandeis University, since she continues to insist on the truth of her testimony before he Senate Judiciary Committee. Indeed, according to news reports, "offensive" was exactly the word Hill used in characterizing Ginni Thomas' message, saying, "she can’t ask for an apology without suggesting that I did something wrong, and that is offensive."
Hill was an unlikely and reportedly reluctant witness against then-Judge Thomas back in the fall of 1991. She was the child of a conservative Baptist family in Oklahoma who distinguished herself academically and ultimately graduated from Yale Law School. As she would tell then Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden, she was only a year out of law school when she came to work for Clarence Thomas.
At the time of the hearings, Hill was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. Over the course of three days in October, she was called everything from scorned to delusional as she maintained that while she worked for Thomas at the US Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he first tried to date her and then periodically made crude sexual jokes and comments. Here's a handy timeline of the events of that weekend. Clarence Thomas famously declared the hearings "a high-tech lynching," and he was ultimately confirmed by a vote of 52-48.
I had already been watching the Thomas confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991, just as I had watched Robert Bork's failed confirmation effort four years before. When sexual harassment allegations surfaced against Thomas from Hill and others who were not called to testify, I was asked by Emerge magazine to assist veteran reporter Sylvester Monroe in gathering interviews for their coverage. As a result, I interviewed a Harvard Law professor who specialized in civil rights, a Harvard psychiatrist, a sociologist who was an expert on the experiences of black women in the workplace and a corporate diversity trainer who did workshops on sexual harassment law.
I mention this because not one of the witnesses who appeared before the Judiciary committee during those hearings had any professional knowledge of these issues. As a result, the Senators, as well as the audience were left to assess the witnesses' credibility on the basis of their personal experience and beliefs. The hearings stirred intense debate, sparked sexual harassment awareness programs in workplaces across the country, and spurred women incensed by the behavior of the all-male Judiciary panel to run for office.
But those hearings left many scars, and not all of them are related to the sexual harassment portion of the hearings.
If Mrs. Thomas is interested in apologies and truth-telling, there are a few more calls she might want to make. The first one might be to her own husband, who falsely depicted his own sister as being "so dependent, she gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check." In fact, his sister, Emma Mae Martin had been on welfare while she cared for sick older relatives and her own children. Throughout the rest of her life, she worked low wage jobs to support her children. According to the book, Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas (Random House, 2008), Thomas apologized to his sister, although she says he has never so much as set foot inside her home. However, he hasn't apologized to the people he misled in his effort to score points with his conservative base.
In a 1997 interview, Harpers' Bazaar spoke to Anita Hill about what she had to endure as a consequence of her decision to speak out:
"At the University of Oklahoma Law Center, she found it difficult to obtain a sabbatical she had earned after six years of teaching, or even a leave without pay. A research professorship in her name was stymied by the legislature, despite an outpouring of donations sufficient for its endowment. Even friends who publicly supported her during the hearings have been so hounded by anonymous calls, letters and, says Hill, 'little parcels of fecal material' that some have chosen to move away from Oklahoma rather than endure the ongoing abuse. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hill resigned from her tenured position and left her office last winter, her job made untenable by the intense scrutiny and overt political pressure placed upon the university."
And of course, there was the psudo-journalistic hit job penned by David Brock, "The Real Anita Hill," which he would later describe as, "a witches' brew of fact, allegation, hearsay, speculation, opinion, and invective labeled by my editors as 'investigative journalism.'" If Ginni Thomas is interested in "extending an olive branch," as she told the New York Times, she might want to consider what Hill has been through.
Hill, for her part, has cast her experiences in a much broader context of the struggle against racism and sexism. This 2008 speech at Simmons College illuminates her perspective on the ways in which the denigration of black women has hurt both black men and women of other races while impeding policies that could enable social progress for all. It also contains "five pledges" that she hopes black women, especially will subscribe.
If Virginia Lamp Thomas is interested in reconciliation, she might want to consider what she might do to combat the caricaturing and maligning of women, especially when they speak out about being wronged, even when she disagrees.
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