This week, the country was gripped for the second time in three decades by allegations of sexual misconduct by a nominee for the highest court in the land. In 1991, the attention centered on Anita Hill, a 35-year-old black woman who had been an attorney-advisor and assistant to Judge Clarence Thomas. Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment provoked the reopening of Thomas’s confirmation hearings as well as a testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans decried Hill as an operative intent on destroying Thomas’s chances to join the Supreme Court; Thomas himself called it a “high-tech lynching.” Despite the charges made against him, Thomas was appointed in the Senate by a vote of 52-48.
Twenty-seven years later, we are in a mirror-image situation. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a 51-year-old white psychologist, testified on Sept. 27 about the sexual assault she faced at the hands of Judge Brett Kavanaugh when they were both in high school. But there are some key differences between Hill and Ford — differences that could alter the outcome for Kavanaugh. For one, Ford may be benefitting from the era of #MeToo, where sexual assault survivors are not silenced. Second, Dr. Ford is white. Hill is black. The distinction shouldn’t matter, but in a political climate that is chronically fraught with racial tension, it may prove decisive.
The #MeToo movement, which began in 2017, sparked an outpouring of stories and support from survivors and raised awareness globally about sexual harassment in the workplace. Many more people, particularly women, were compelled to speak out, knowing their experiences wouldn’t be disregarded as slander. Dismissal was exactly the problem that Hill faced in 1991. Thomas had seemed credible and upstanding in his earlier confirmation hearings, and so many members of the Senate dismissed Hill’s claims immediately. For example, Senator Arlen Specter, a member of the Judiciary Committee, asked her, “How reliable is your testimony in October 1991 on events that occurred eight, ten years ago?” Senator Alan Simpson questioned why she hadn’t come forward earlier. Ultimately, doubts about the integrity of Hill’s testimony protected Thomas’s nomination.
In the wake of #MeToo, we might expect to see a difference in how Dr. Ford is treated. To some extent, there has been. Dr. Ford has still faced suspicion, particularly from Republicans. Some dismiss it as a case of mistaken identity, while others think she is a pawn of the Democrats intent on squashing a nomination right before a decisive midterm election. However, there are politicians on both sides of the aisle who seem more perceptive. For example, Democratic Senator Cory Booker said to Dr. Ford, “You are speaking truth that this country needs to understand — how we deal with survivors who come forward right now is unacceptable.” The Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, who are all male, chose to cede their questioning time to Rachel Mitchell, a female prosecutor specializing in sex crimes. Their decision may have been for optics more than anything else—it wouldn’t look great for eleven men to be interrogating a woman about her sexual assault, especially with looming midterm elections and female voters expected to turn out in large numbers. However, Mitchell’s recruitment shows a certain sensitivity to changes in the national attitude about sexual assault survivors. It suggests that #MeToo can be effective in making politicians respond and self-reflect, a luxury that Anita Hill didn’t have.
The #MeToo movement has also placed Hill’s testimony in a new light. Resulting from the parallels between her and Dr. Ford, many people have come out in support, lamenting the fact that her claims were dismissed in the past. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during Thomas’s confirmation hearings and has been criticized for being too lenient with Thomas when investigating Hill’s allegations, said of Hill in 2017, “I owe her an apology.” Hindsight, especially in the context of #MeToo, has turned the tides of public opinion. The recent rise in empathy towards Hill may have also made it easier for Dr. Ford to testify; she knows she is not heading into uncharted territory with her accusation.
#MeToo may not be the only reason why Dr. Ford’s claim has gained more traction than Hill’s did; racial dynamics may also have come into play. Black women have historically felt more pressure to remain quiet in the face of a sexual assault, according to Nicole Buchanan, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. In a 2018 article in The Nation, Buchanan said victims begin to think “this is going to reinforce these stereotypes about my brother, my dad, my lover and I don’t want to do that so maybe I should just stay silent.” For this reason, Hill’s accusations may have seemed unusual or unprovoked, since there was little precedent for a black woman speaking out against a black man. On the other hand, when a white woman makes an allegation against a white man, she does not have to worry as much about perpetuating negative stereotypes, so she might feel more freedom to speak out.
Dr. Ford may also be benefitting from an elitism bias. She is a professor and a Stanford researcher, and she attended a private college-prep high school in Maryland. Hill, on the other hand, is the youngest of thirteen children in a family of farmers from Oklahoma. Her grandfather was born into slavery. Although she is highly educated herself — she attended Yale Law School — her allegations stem from her time as Thomas’s “assistant,” a job title with a negative connotation. In a culture that values women like Dr. Ford (white, middle-aged, and from a rich family) over women like Hill (black, young, and from a poor family), it is possible that the public’s tendency to believe Dr. Ford and not Hill is linked with surface-level perceptions of how believable these women are.
#MeToo and racial dynamics may have bolstered the perceived legitimacy of Dr. Ford’s claims compared to Hill’s, but there is no guarantee that the outcome of the nominations will be different. Senate Republicans are intent on pushing Kavanaugh through before the midterm elections in fear that they will lose seats, and many have expressed reluctance to withhold the nomination because of a “he said, she said” situation. There is still a possibility, of course, that Dr. Ford’s version of events isn’t the whole story. One thing is clear, though: Dr. Ford’s and Hill’s accusations are not black and white issues. There are too many dynamics at play.