Anita, my dad and me


PRECISELY A year ago this week, I watched the televised Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings with my father, a staunch Thomas supporter.

Ordinarily I head for the Catoctins when fall arrives. But last year, against my better judgment, I accepted Dad's urgent invitation to share a milestone in history.

We argued non-stop for the next three days.

I remember how open-minded I tried to be, listening patiently to his ornately rationalized opinions as to why it was imperative to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall with a man whom I considered to be an historical aberration.

That was a year ago. This year is supposed to be the "Year of the Woman." Well, I'm a woman and I'm still not exactly sure what that phrase is supposed to mean.

Admittedly I'm a little disconcerted by all those capital letters. It sounds empowering, even lofty. And yet the despair and anger I felt last year after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas debacle has only slowly evolved into cautious hope that change is occurring for women, however grudgingly and painfully.

I put a high value on righteous indignation. Some of my best work has come when I was angry. So I can understand why Democrat Lynn Yeakel got so mad at Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's verbal mauling of Ms. Hill that she declared her candidacy for his Senate seat.

Ms. Yeakel got off to a rocky start, though. Skeptics said thumbs down: She's too much the Hausfrau -- another word for "airhead."

Even so, her baptism by fire ultimately could help Ms. Yeakel. The Philadelphia housewife is learning to play partisan hardball fast. She managed to perform well in a debate with Senator Specter last week, thus reviving at least the possibility of an underdog win next month.

For Mr. Specter, the frustration of running against Ms. Yeakel must be akin to that of the biggest bully in the schoolyard having sand kicked at him by a kindergartner in a frilly frock. He wants desperately to punch her lights out but can't because everyone's watching him.

Meanwhile, Illinois Democrat Carol Mosley Braun, another novice running for the Senate, successfully capitalized on women's ire TC over the Anita Hill affair to defeat incumbent Sen. Alan Dixon in a bruising three-way primary. Mr. Dixon, a moderate Democrat, was caught in the Thomas backlash when he voted for the justice's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Ms. Braun presently enjoys a comfortable lead in the polls over Republican Rich Williamson after legions of insulted Republican women crossed party lines to deal Mr. Dixon a resounding blow.

I want to believe in women like Ms. Yeakel and Ms. Braun, women with enough guts to lay it on the line despite their limited exposure to traditionally male bastions of power.

Women could have unique advantages against such power. The challenge for Ms. Yeakel and Ms. Braun will be whether they can get politically savvy quickly enough to exploit their inexperience effectively.

The issue of sexual harassment was the galvanizing force behind the sudden rise to prominence of both these candidates. But it is still too soon to tell whether that's enough to sustain a long-term movement for women's empowerment.

For African American, Native American, Asian-American and Hispanic women especially, sustaining such alliances is even more difficult because they first must disentangle their politics from the superimposed problems of sexual and racial discrimination.

These women often face a house-of-mirrors existence, where distorted reflections inhibit growth and empowerment. How is it possible for them to navigate successfully around the rocks of sex and race when the two appear as one in the fog of this country's generalized misperceptions of women of color?

The feminist movement's inability to completely accommodate this dualism in its national dialogue leaves many women of color sitting on the sidelines. The movement ultimately loses the opportunity to harness the energy of millions of women invigorated by rage.

The disproportionate numbers of African American mothers -- married, divorced or single -- represent a tremendous force for change.

A year ago, the complexities of the Thomas-Hill hearings reduced themselves to simple black and white arithmetic in my dad's mind: better an imperfect black than no blacks at all. I thought his logic bordered on lunacy. Yet as I've reflected over the course of a year, perhaps he wasn't so wrong after all.

I still believe Justice Thomas will do nothing to benefit the vast majority of black people. Yet the cumulative effect of two successive black justices still may carry long-term benefits for black people.

After all, water flows over the dam quicker after the first few drops. If Judge Thomas could manage to squeak by, maybe Ms. Yeakel and Ms. Braun can too. Perhaps that's the lesson here for women. Maybe that's what "The Year of the Woman" is really about.

Roz Hamlett writes from Baltimore.

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