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As Kavanaugh hearings remind observers of Anita Hill, history is repeating — and diverging

Hill's 1991 confrontation with the U.S. Senate galvanized a new women's movement. Decades later, their numbers have grown and their anger is real.

Anita Hill appears at a press conference regarding the upcoming Hill-Clarence hearings. In 1991, Hill claimed that Judge Clarence Thomas, nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her while working for him years earlier. (Photo by © Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Anita Hill appears at a press conference regarding the upcoming Hill-Clarence hearings. In 1991, Hill claimed that Judge Clarence Thomas, nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her while working for him years earlier. (Photo by © Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As someone who had a ringside seat during the provocative 1991 Senate hearing as then-University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when he was her boss at Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, I’m bracing myself for Monday’s potentially dramatic hearing where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford could share, with a similarly transfixed nation, her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers decades ago.

On the surface, it feels like deja vu. In both cases, the outcome of a hyperpartisan battle to place a conservative on the High Court turns, in the 11th hour, on a previously unknown woman’s sudden allegations of sexual impropriety against the nominee.

But facile media accounts tend to understate the direct link between the winding paths that Kavanaugh and Thomas have taken through what’s become a bitterly contentious maze of their respective Supreme Court confirmations.

Based on my reporting and vivid recollections of the Thomas hearings, comparison isn’t the correct vantage to view these separate points in history. Yes, there are some similarities between the two cases, but that’s the easy analysis. We are better served to focus on the stark and profound differences, reflecting a nearly quarter-century of political, cultural and societial changes that have transformed how many Americans view politics through prisms of racism and sexism.

Clearly, the political backdrops to the two situations are vastly changed. In 1991, Democrats controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee — and a key player in the drama was no less than then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. Biden’s chairmanship of the Thomas nomination hearing is now viewed as a disaster, one that, in later years, has drawn a guilty lamentation, from Biden, as well as an apology for his conduct.

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Biden’s political fortunes, of course, survived the contentious hearings long enough for him to spend the subsequent years running for higher office — a pair of failed runs for president, and a successful bid to serve as President Barack Obama’s Vice President.

But Biden was just one of many senators — both Democrats and Republicans — whose bad behavior was on display at Anita Hill’s turn before the Judiciary Committee. Perhaps no one was more aggressively mean than Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who still sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and will participate in the interrogation of Ford. Hatch famously argued that Hill was a Democratic plant, sent to bring down the Thomas nomination.

“And there’s no question in my mind she was coached by special interest groups,” Hatch said in an interview with the Deseret News shortly after Hill testified before the Senate committee. “Her story’s too contrived. It’s so slick it doesn’t compute.” Hatch would go on to accuse Hill of pilfering her account of Thomas’ transgressions from the page’s of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.

To be sure, the political climate of that era allowed some — but not all — of these white and male senators to outrage women with their words and actions, without ever having to pay any kind of steep political price. Indeed, what I remember most from covering the Thomas hearings as a Washington-based correspondent for the Los Angeles Times was that most Americans — including most black Americans — supported Thomas’s nomination, even after the highly-watched testimony from Hill.

During the Hill hearings, I had the opportunity to talk to a broad cross-section of black Americans, and I found that they, by and large, felt more shame over Hill’s testimony than they felt outraged at Thomas. In one story, for example, those I spoke to told me that they just wished the hearings had never happened:

As both Thomas’ and Hill’s reputations were debated in front of 14 white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee and in front of countless others in homes and offices across the nation, many black Americans said that they felt as if their collective souls were being exposed.

Reflecting an often-expressed view, Donna Ball, an administrator for New York City, concluded that the nationally televised questioning “smacks of a peep show to entertain whites at black people’s expense. We all know how somehow (white) people will use this against black people.”

In a recent article, CNN’s Grace Sparks noted the broad public support for Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court actually grew in the wake Hill’s testimony. Citing a series of 1991 polls, Sparks wrote:

Months later, after Anita Hill accused the judge of sexual harassment and testified about it on Capitol Hill, the number who said the Senate should vote to confirm had grown, with 58% who said yes, according to a Gallup poll. After his confirmation, in an ABC News / Washington Post poll, 62% of Americans said Thomas should have been confirmed compared to 34% who said he should not. More Americans told Gallup they believed Thomas — 48% — than Hill — 29% — after her testimony.

Armed with this broad political cover, the senators felt empowered to disbelieve Hill’s testimony and fully embrace Thomas.

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But the fight for his confirmation proved to be a pivotal moment in the nation’s political history in another sense — it catalyzed the political fury of American women.

Angered over Hill’s treatment at the hands of an all-white, all-male panel, women jumped into Senate races themselves and, with the support of energized women voters who cast enough ballots to produce what became known as the “Year of the Woman,” they sent a then-record four Democratic women — Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, Patty Murray of Washington, and Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both of California — in one election to the U.S. Senate.

While women remain underrepresented in Washington’s halls of power, as well as other influential realms, they are no longer exclusively on the sidelines as men wield unrestricted clout. In fact, Feinstein’s role in the current, unfolding Kavanaugh drama is proof of the social changes that have altered the nation’s political landscape. Feinstein is the top Democrat handling the Kavanaugh nomination and has been a central player in bringing Ford to public attention.

What’s more, the #MeToo Movement has provided women with an effective template to further challenge male authority and power over their lives and bodies. Once again, politically active women are making their own statements by running for office — and getting elected.

I’d argue that what is likely to unfold in the days to come in the Kavanaugh hearings and possible confirmation vote won’t merely be a redux of the Thomas-Hill drama. Rather, we are likely to see American women, displeased with misogyny, dispense with the uncertainty and exercise political will with a previously unseen fervor. This is progress, ushering the potential for women-centered change and activism for a new generation.