The Strange Case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill

by Camille Paglia

 Anita Hill is no feminist heroine.  A week ago, in the tense climax of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings into the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the important issue of sexual harassment, one of the solid innovations of contemporary feminism, was used and abused for political purposes.

 In an atrocious public spectacle worthy of the show trials of a totalitarian regime, uncorroborated allegations about verbal exchanges ten years old were paraded on the nation’s television screens.  The Judiciary Committee should have thoroughly investigated the charges but conducted the proceedings privately.  It was an appalling injustice to both Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas to pit them and their supporters against each other.  The Senate turned itself into the Roman Colosseum, with decadent, jaded patricians waving thumbs down over a blood-drenched arena.

 Five years ago, because of the absence of a sexual harassment policy at my university, I initiated a workshop on the question in my women’s studies class.  I collected sexual harassment guidelines and documents from Philadelphia-area universities, distributed them to the class, and guided the formulation of proposals, which we presented to the dean.  Such guidelines are crucial not only to warn potential offenders but to help women stand their ground in specific encounters.  In our democratic society, however, we must also protect the rights of the accused.  Frivolous claims of misconduct do occur.

 I listened carefully to Anita Hill’s testimony at the Senate hearings.  I found her to be sincere and intelligent.  But I reject her claim of sexual harassment.  What exactly transpired between her and Clarence Thomas we can never know.  That Hill was distressed by references to sex may indeed be the case.  But since they were never threatening and never led to pressure for a date, I fail to see how they constitute sexual harassment.  Many religious men, as well as women, find conversations about sex or pornography inappropriate and unacceptable.  This is not a gender issue.  It is our personal responsibility to define what we will and will not tolerate.

 The sexual revolution of my Sixties generation broke the ancient codes of decorum that protected respectable ladies from profanation by foul language.  We demanded an end to the double standard.  What troubles me about the “hostile workplace” category of sexual harassment policy is that women are being returned to their old status of delicate flowers who must be protected from assault by male lechers.  It is anti-feminist to ask for special treatment for women.

 America is still burdened by its Puritan past, which erupts again and again in public scenarios of sexual inquisition, as in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  If Anita Hill was thrown for a loop by sexual banter, that’s her problem.  If by the age of twenty-six, as a graduate of the Yale Law School, she could find no convincing way to signal her displeasure and disinterest, that’s her deficiency.  We cannot rely on rigid rules and regulations to structure everything in our lives.  There is a blurry line between our professional and private selves.  We are sexual beings, and as Freud demonstrated, eroticism pervades every aspect of our consciousness.

 Hill woodenly related the content of conversations without any reference to their context or tone.  The senators never asked about joking, smiles, facial expressions, hers as well as his.  Every social encounter is a game being played by two parties.  I suspect Hill’s behavior was compliant and, to use her own word about a recent exchange with a Thomas friend, “passive.”  Judging by her subsequent cordial behavior toward Thomas, Hill chose to put her career interests above feminist principle.  She went along to get along.  Hence it is hypocritical of her, ten years later, to invoke feminist principle when she did not have the courage to stand on it before.  For feminists to make a heroine out of Hill is to insult all those other women who have taken a bolder, more confrontational course and forfeited career advantage.

 In this case, the sexual harassment issue was a smoke screen, cynically exploited to serve another issue, abortion rights.  Although I am firmly pro-choice, I think there should be no single-issue litmus test for nominees to the Supreme Court.  And the strategy backfired.  Thomas, who had seemed bland and evasive for the prior hundred days of the hearings, emerged under fire with vastly increased stature.  He was passionate, forceful, dignified.

 Make no mistake: it was not a White House conspiracy that saved this nomination.  It was Clarence Thomas himself.  After eight hours of Hill’s testimony, he was driven as low as any man could be.  But step by step, with sober, measured phrases, he regained his position and turned the momentum against his accusers.  It was one of the most powerful moments I have ever witnessed on television.  Giving birth to himself, Thomas reenacted his own credo of self-made man.

 Paglia, Camille. 1992. "The Strange Case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill."  In Sex, Art, and American Culture. Vintage Books.