Twenty three years ago, Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) was one of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who heard testimony from Anita Hill, a law professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her before he was nominated to the Supreme Court. Those hearings have been widely criticized for essentially putting Hill on trial rather than taking her allegations seriously. In an interview with WNYC this week, Simpson acknowledged that he was a “monster” to Hill back then, but explained it was because he didn’t believe her allegations were that serious.
“I thought, what is this? I mean, for god’s sake, what did he do? Well, nothing,” Simpson said, noting that his wife Ann had experienced “much more harassment than Anita Hill.”
Simpson recounted his exchange with Hill and the information she gave about the inappropriate behavior perpetrated by Thomas. “ ‘Did he touch you?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘Well, we watched porn movies together. And he wanted to talk about Long Dong Silver and pubic hair and coke cans.’ ‘Is that it? Is that it?’ ‘Yes, it is,’ “ he paraphrased. “And so I was a monster. I was just pissed to the core.”
Back in 1991, Hill’s hearing — which required her to recount the explicit details of her allegations over and over again to a panel of all-white, all-male lawmakers — was explosive national news. The lawmakers on the panel appeared to be confused about what exactly constituted the definition of sexual harassment.
For instance, at the time, Simpson demanded to know why Hill didn’t report the abuse immediately. “If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name when he left his position of power or status or authority over you, and you left it in 1983, why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?” he asked her. Hill attempted to explain that she was afraid of damage to her professional life, and this response isn’t atypical for victims of sexual harassment. Simpson brushed her response aside, saying it was “incredible” to him that Hill remained in contact with Thomas and imagining the “terrible pain” he would feel if his own sons were falsely accused of “such alleged contact.”
The former Wyoming senator has a history of sparking controversy with his comments about women. In 2010, Simpson — the co-chairman of President Obama’s bipartisan debt commission — came under fire for describing Social Security as a “milk cow with 310 million tits!” in an email. Simpson later apologized for that comment.
Anita Hill’s testimony helped put the issue of sexual harassment on the map for millions of Americans who hadn’t previously grappled with the subject. After Hill stood her ground in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, other women finally had a name for what was happening to them in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a sharp spike in the number of sexual harassment charges the following year.
But, as Simpson’s recent comments demonstrate, our elected officials haven’t necessarily come very far in this area. Simpson appears to remain confused about the distinction between sexual harassment and sexual assault; while the latter involves physical contact, Hill’s sexual harassment allegations don’t actually hinge on whether or not Thomas touched her.
For exactly this reason, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) recently began pushing Congress to implement mandatory sexual harassment training, noting that many of the lawmakers in office may not realize what exactly constitutes inappropriate behavior. Those type of tranings, which are common in the private sector, have been mandatory for years in the executive branch. But they’re still voluntary for House and Senate personal and committee offices. “This is the House of Representatives, not a frat house. It is time for all of us to get trained,” Speier said in a statement at the time.
Over two decades after Hill’s iconic testimony, this remains an incredibly widespread issue in America. An estimated one in four women in the U.S. has experienced sexual harassment at some point at her place of work, and women are also forced to deal with gender-based harassment simply when they walk down the street. But the people who haven’t been subject to this type of harassment are more likely to think it’s no big deal. While 64 percent of the general public says that sexual harassment is a big problem in the U.S., that number jumps to 88 percent among the women who have actually been forced to experience it.
Although some of the senators on the Judiciary Committee have since acknowledged that the “aging white males” on the panel probably didn’t understand the “explosive nature” of the issue, they have not apologized to Anita Hill for the nature of the hearings.