This week, a new allegation against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas emerged. Moira Smith says that 19 years ago, when she was 23, Thomas groped her while she was helping set the table for a dinner event and told her she should sit “right next to” him. Her story was also corroborated by her friends of the time, who remembered her sharing that story with them.
But the allegation has some additional credence given the number of women who have alleged they experienced similar harassment from Thomas. And it’s not just from the most famous accuser, Anita Hill.
Hill came forward and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 while the committee was considering Thomas’s nomination to the bench. She described how when she worked under him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — the very agency in charge of dealing with sexual harassment claims —he pressured her to date him, made sexually explicit comments, and frequently talked about pornography at work. In perhaps the most famous anecdote, Hill alleges that he got up from a table where they were sitting together, went over to his desk to get a soda, and said, “Who has put pubic hair on my coke?”
It was a landmark moment in which the country wrestled with the realities of sexual harassment on a national stage for the first time. Sexual harassment complaints lodged with the EEOC rose 71 percent in the year after her testimony.
But less public were the other women who also wanted to testify against Thomas. The most well known was Angela Wright, now Angela Wright Shannon, who had worked for Thomas in the 80s at the EEOC. She claimed he had pressured her to date him, even showing up at her apartment one night. She also said he had asked her the size of her breasts and commented on other women’s bodies. While she said she wasn’t intimidated by him and at the time said she didn’t feel sexually harassed, today she describes his behavior as “really awkward.”
Wright has always insisted that she was ready and willing to testify, but the committee, under the leadership of its then chairman Joe Biden, decided not to call her.
She wasn’t the only one: Sukari Hardnett, who was a special assistant to Thomas in the mid-80s, wrote to the committee at the time that Thomas frequently called her into his office for meetings but then talked about his private life with women. “If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female” by him, she wrote. “Women know when there are sexual dimensions to the attention they are receiving. And there was never any doubt about that dimension in Clarence Thomas’s office.” She also never got the chance to testify.
Thomas, of course, was eventually confirmed and still serves on the court. And from that perch he has made things more difficult for women who bring workplace sexual harassment claims. He was the key fifth vote in the Vance v. Ball State University Supreme Court case in 2013, which redefined the word “supervisor” to drastically weaken it. Under current law, cases of sexual harassment by supervisors carry more weight and are easier to win than those by coworkers. But the Vance decision significantly narrowed who can be considered a supervisor.
It’s a decision that’s already had serious ramifications. Within a year, 43 sexual harassment cases were dismissed because of the stricter requirements, as ThinkProgress previously reported.