Anita Hill was in the room.
Not physically, but the presence of the professor who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991 was felt throughout Thursday’s hearing. In it, another professor, Christine Blasey Ford, described her sexual assault that she is 100% certain was perpetrated by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Women couldn’t take their eyes off of Ford, wearing a brilliant blue suit just like Anita Hill did. Ford provided details like the “uproarious laughter” of her assailants and the bed on the right side of the room, which made me think of Hill describing the pubic hair on the Coke can: These particulars are too unique and specific to make up.
Clarence Thomas’ ghost seemed present, too, in Kavanaugh’s anger, righteousness, and even language. Both he and Thomas called their hearings “a circus,” “a disgrace” and a “character assassination.”
Ever since Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct while in high school, many have wondered if we’re experiencing Hill/Thomas redux. When the committee voted to advance Kavanaugh Friday, we inched closer in that direction.
Beyond the court, there are actually many recent examples of the 90s repeating themselves. As a society, and in films, television, and countless think pieces, we have begun to individually revisit some of the women who were smeared in the 90s. Not only Hill, but Monica Lewinsky, figure skater Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark and Virginia manicurist Lorena Bobbitt, who became infamous for cutting off her husband’s penis.
What we have yet to do is evaluate their stories together, and until we do, women’s place in American society will be perpetually stuck in the retrograde 90s, the first time a man accused of sexual misconduct was seated on the court.
During the 90s, the onset of the 24-hour news cycle created consequences for all women that we have yet to fully comprehend. Media coverage not only characterized women as bad, trampy, villains, victims, angry and incompetent, but these stereotypes continued to evolve as the tales played out on television for days, weeks, months and sometimes even years.
One news director in a major market told me her mandate was to “fill the air,” and that her anchors passed the time not with additional reporting but with critiques of women’s appearances — their hair, their makeup and the sound of their voice.
These views of women have become etched into our culture and are difficult to erase. They still very much inform our reality today, as is plainly on display in the response to the accusations against Kavanaugh, from the media to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Traveling around to discuss the book I wrote about this history, I’m frequently told things like, “Anita Hill chased Clarence Thomas”; Monica Lewinsky was to blame for the atrocious way she was treated; and women like Lorena Bobbitt and Courtney Love don’t belong in my book because they aren’t “good feminists,” as if there is such a thing.
Indeed, as the film “I, Tonya” laid bare, Tonya Harding, who was disparaged (incorrectly) for assaulting Nancy Kerrigan, was in fact herself a victim of domestic violence. And in revisiting the news coverage from the time one can see clearly how, both Harding and Kerrigan, were demonized and vilified by a misogynistic popular culture. After she lost Olympic gold, the Washington Post asked, “Is Nancy a Bitch?”
Similarly, Marcia Clark was undermined and belittled by the judge presiding over the 1994 “trial of the century,” who addressed the male defense attorneys by their surnames, but called her “Marcia.” While male lawyers were quoted about case law or legal strategy, reports focused on Clark’s hair, makeup, skirt length and whether or not she was a good mom.
In politics, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was called abrasive, cold and out of her depth, and was at one point mistaken for a cleaning lady while traveling on official government business. The first woman attorney general Janet Reno is often remembered by Will Ferrell’s impersonation of her on “Saturday Night Live,” as a genderless and sexually awkward dance-party host, a reflection of society’s discomfort with Reno’s height, appearance and lack of a partner or romantic life.
Lorena Bobbitt’s story has yet to be re-examined. She survived years of marital rape, and her abusive husband threatened to have her deported if she reported him to the police. Bobbit was shamed in the media as a sex-crazed perpetrator. Meanwhile, John Wayne Bobbitt, an accused rapist, walked free, was celebrated in People magazine as a playboy, and Howard Stern offered to pay his legal bills.
If we’re ever to end the morass of misogyny drowning our country, we must reckon with our very recent past, not in piecemeal, but as a whole. When we do so, what becomes clear is how all women, any women, were and continue to be mistreated and undermined simply on account of their gender.
When we see how both Hillary Clinton and Courtney Love were attacked for exhibiting male ambition, how Hill and Bobbitt were discredited with the same derogations (erotomaniac, scorned woman), and how Harding’s, Clark’s and Reno’s womanhood were called into question because they appeared too competent, then we can truly see the sexism at work in the shaping of their stories, and our society’s failure to confront it.
Just as the Senate Judiciary Committee is still comprised of some of the very same (white, male) senators who heard Hill’s charge on the record in 1991, so too is the news media populated with some of the very same (white, male) arbiters of content. Let’s not forget that media titans like Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose controlled storytelling in the 90s and for years, long before it was revealed that they had abused their power, threatened women and broken the law. Their sexist lens continues to affect what we see and don’t see on television.
“I’m stunned that this is happening again,” said former Sen. Barbara Boxer of the charges against Kavanaugh. “But it’s not surprising because our culture has not completely dealt with inequality between men and women.”
Sexism hid in plain sight in the 90s. In the post-#Metoo era, it is exposed. But that’s not enough to change society. If Kavanaugh is appointed, we won’t only have repeated one of the scourges of the 90s, we’ll have done worse because we should now know better.