When I think of Arlen Specter, it's impossible for me not to think about Anita Hill (pictured left, testifying before the Senate in 1991). And Specter's treatment of her during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings.
This is how the Philadelphia Inquirer remembered their interaction yesterday.
In 1991. . .Specter helped win confirmation of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas. And the way it happened became one of the enduring and most controversial episodes of his career.
After Anita Hill, a law professor who had earlier worked for Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accused Thomas of sexual harassment, Specter shredded her on cross-examination before the Judiciary Committee. He concluded that Hill had been guilty of "flat-out perjury" because she made allegations at the confirmation hearings that appeared to contradict her sworn statement to the FBI.
Specter's treatment of Hill enraged millions of women and motivated an election challenge in 1992 by Democrat Lynn Yeakel, who had no political experience. Specter only narrowly defeated her that November.
GONYEA: I talked to a lot of voters in Pennsylvania over the last couple of days, and Anita Hill's name came up as often as anything else when you're talking to people who were voting for Joe Sestak and against Arlen Specter.In the immediate wake of Arlen Specter's defeat, journalist Howard Megdal felt moved to write this on The Perpetual Post.
I was surprised that of all the emotions I felt Tuesday night, watching Arlen Specter give his concession speech, sympathy wasn’t one of them. In short, it was just too hard to develop feelings of attachment for Arlen after decades of thinking of him as a man apart from what I wanted to happen in the country. I’m guessing that’s as good a reason as any for his defeat in the Pennsylvania Senate primary.
For me, Arlen Specter was at first the guy who was mean to Anita Hill. The Clarence Thomas hearings were the first public policy debate I remember being fully engaged in. I recall thinking what a waste of time it was for me to be at Hebrew School on the night Thomas accused the Senate of conducting “a high-tech lynching.”
With sex ed still a few months away, I got to learn about pubic hair in the public forum instead, and in a foreshadowing of the liberalism I came to follow, I knew that there was something creepy enough about Thomas, and truthful about Hill, that this was not a man who should serve on the United States Supreme Court. Yet Specter’s manner toward Hill was so condescending, it was hard to see him as anything other than an agent for the opposing side.Arlen Specter got the boot Tuesday from Pennsylvania voters for a number of reasons deeply imbedded in the here and now. So, whatever impact he's to have on American history and culture has probably been made. But in going back and reading about his long, long career in the Senate, it seems to me (and I don't think just because I'm a woman in the workplace) that the part he played in the Clarence Thomas hearings may, ironically, do as much good as anything he ever did.
Here's a perspective on the impact of that hearing, offered by the Center for History and News Media at George Mason University.
To the many people who believed Anita Hill's claims or opposed the Thomas nomination on other grounds, Thomas's appointment was a defeat. Yet, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy had other long-term consequences beyond Justice Thomas's life-term on the Supreme Court. Foremost, national awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace heightened considerably. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases have more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Over the same period, awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million.
Another repercussion of the Hill-Thomas controversy was the increased involvement of women in politics. The media heralded the 1992 election year as the "Year of the Woman" when a record number of women ran for public office and won. In the U.S. Senate, eleven women ran and five won seats--including one incumbent candidate. In the House of Representatives, twenty-four women won new seats. Many commentators saw this increase as a direct reaction to the Thomas nomination. His appointment dismayed many women, who felt that Anita Hill's allegations were not taken seriously by a Senate that was 98% male.
In the end, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy acted as a flash point that illuminated many of the central tensions of life in late twentieth-century America. Justice Thomas's nomination to replace Justice Marshall prompted new retrospection on the accomplishments of the modern Civil Rights movement and sparked more debate about Affirmative Action policies. Anita Hill's accusations heightened public awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and women's unequal representation in the political sphere. The media frenzy surrounding the event marked a new trend of obsessive and often tabloid-style coverage that has only worsened through subsequent news events such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton sex scandal. Historians will always turn to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy to understand race relations, gender politics, and media influences in America at the brink of the twenty-first century.