A Republican nominee for the Supreme Court. A salacious and sexual allegation from out of left field. A polarized nation watching on TV.
Welcome back to 1991, when Anita Hill shared sordid tales of sexual harassment by alleged porn aficionado Clarence Thomas. As the drama unspooled in Washington, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was out on the West Coast collecting her master’s degree in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University.
She took center stage Thursday with nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the Thomas role.
Some things are different — most notably, Hill addressed an all-male, all-white panel of 14 U.S. Senators. The current Senate Judiciary Committee includes four women and three people of color — all Democrats.
Here are a few key similarities — and one huge difference — in the two hearings.
The women and their allegations
Hill, a 35-year-old law professor at the University of Oklahoma, initially insisted on public anonymity for her tales of Thomas’ unwanted attention and his graphic descriptions of pornography . But she emerged to testify at Thomas’ confirmation hearings.
Ford, a 51-year-old California research psychologist, similarly tried to avoid going public with her allegations. She first made her charges of a sexual assault by Kavanaugh in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein on July 30, days after President Trump announced the nomination. She finally attached her name to the allegations this month.
The men and their defense
Both Thomas and Kavanaugh emphatically and emotionally denied the misconduct allegations raised against them.
Like Kavanaugh, Thomas blamed the accusations on a partisan attempt to block his confirmation. “This is a circus. It is a national disgrace,” Thomas said on the opening day of the hearing in 1991. “As a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.”
Kavanaugh invoked the word “circus” as well.
Additional Accusers and outside witnesses
In the days since Ford came forward with her allegations, three more accusations of sexual misconduct and one of physical assault were leveled against Kavanaugh — who denied them all.
Thomas similarly faced an additional claim of misconduct from Angela Wright, who like Hill, accused the judge of sexual harassment while they worked together. She was fired from her job and later revealed in an interview with NPR she was never called to testify.
Line of Questioning
Sen. Hatch accused Hill of borrowing the Coke can incident, where Thomas reportedly inquired about a public hair placed on his soda, from the novel “The Exorcist.” Reading aloud from the best-selling tale of demonic possession, he pointed to a character who said he found an “alien pubic hair” in his gin.
Hatch similarly has attempted to cast doubt on Ford’s allegations, saying that Kavanaugh is a “good man” and that she is “mistaken.”
Confirmation and the #MeToo age
The #MeToo movement is perhaps the biggest single change in the 27 years between the hearing, culminating in the jailing of Bill Cosby and the indictment of Harvey Weinstein.
“A lot is different now,” Hill, now 62, said in an interview with the Associated Press. “A number of powerful men have been held accountable.”
Much of that has to do with Hill’s testimony. On Oct. 15, 1991, the senate narrowly voted to approve Thomas’ confirmation, but the hearing ushered in a greater awareness for sexual assault across the country. The all male-panel and its handling of Hill also forced the spotlight on a lack of female representation in D.C.
The following year, a record 47 women were elected to the House of Representatives – 24 of them for the first time. And another four women nabbed Senate seats it what would later be dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”