Twenty years ago today, a Senate committee began taking a second look at Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. He had seemed to be heading for routine confirmation in 1991 when a new accusation emerged. A University of Oklahoma law professor named Anita Hill said she had been sexually harassed by Thomas when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The new hearings called to consider those charges would shift the political, judicial and cultural landscapes. Anita Hill's allegations surfaced in a report by NPR's Nina Totenberg, who then covered the hearings that followed.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Right out of the starting gate, the hearing was white hot as Anita Hill, a 35-year-old black law professor, described how Clarence Thomas had pressured her to go out with him, and how he subjected her to sexually explicit conversations when the two were alone in the office.


ANITA HILL: He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes.

TOTENBERG: She described Thomas's behavior in vivid terms as in this iconic moment.


HILL: One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office, looked at the can and asked, who has put pubic hair on my Coke?

TOTENBERG: Before day's end, Thomas demanded to be heard. His eyes burning with fury, he categorically denied the charges, and accused the all-white, all-male committee of conducting an ambush aimed at cutting down a black conservative nominee.


CLARENCE THOMAS: It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.

TOTENBERG: Thomas's testimony was steeped in emotion.


THOMAS: If someone wanted to block me because they don't like the composition of the court, that's fine. But to destroy me, Senator, I would have preferred an assassin's bullet.

TOTENBERG: The testimony of the accuser and the accused, and their supporting witnesses, went on for three days, lasting on one night into the early hours of the next day. So riveting were the hearings that they were carried live by every news broadcast network and parodied by on TV comedy shows. In the end, there was no Perry Mason moment to establish who told the truth. Thomas was confirmed 52-48, the narrowest margin in a century. But the effects of those hearings extended well beyond Thomas and Hill.

Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute Center for American Women and Politics, says that before the hearings women didn't talk about their harassment experiences. They were embarrassed and blamed themselves.

RUTH MANDEL: It was a beast out there, but it was invisible and it hadn't been named.

TOTENBERG: University of Colorado law Professor Melissa Hart.

MELISSA HART: These hearings certainly brought the issue of sexual harassment into the public eye, and people started being willing to say this happened to me.

TOTENBERG: In the year after the hearings, the number of sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC nearly doubled, then nearly tripled by 1997 and kept growing until 2001. The hearings also broke a barrier for women in the political arena. The Eagleton Institute's Mandel notes that women had made some inroads in elected office by 1991, but almost exclusively at the lower levels.

MANDEL: There had been no movement at the national level before, so it inspired some people. Women who were close to the starting gate stepped up to the gate and pushed through.

TOTENBERG: In 1991, there were just two women in the Senate. But after the Thomas hearings, nearly a dozen women won major party nominations, and five were elected in 1992. Among them was Washington State's Patty Murray, the self-described mom in tennis shoes, who listened to the hearings and decided she could do a lot better than that as a senator. Murray is now co-chair of the supercommittee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee would not be the same either. It's not been all-male since that time, and every confirmation hearing has included a behind-closed-doors session in which senators can ask questions about personal matters or about an FBI file. There were other effects too, on the political culture, ultimately paving the way for the Clinton impeachment, says historian Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School.

NOAH FELDMAN: That really broke a kind of a barrier, which I think probably previously could have been thought of as a barrier of silence or a barrier of public politeness, and quite possibly both. This really culminated during the Clinton and Monica Lewinsky period when still more intimate details of their relationship ended up being broadly discussed in the public eye.

TOTENBERG: Before Anita Hill emerged, the earlier hearings on the Thomas nomination had established another precedent - a say-nothing pattern intended to avoid the controversy that had consumed the nomination of conservative Robert Bork four years earlier. Bork had detailed his views at length and been rejected. Now Thomas asserted that he had no opinion on such landmark cases as Roe vs. Wade, the court's 1973 abortion ruling. Senator Patrick Leahy was incredulous.


SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: You're not suggesting that there wasn't any discussion at any time of Roe vs. Wade?

THOMAS: Senator, I cannot remember personally engaging in those discussions.

TOTENBERG: Historian Noah Feldman.

LEAHY: Most people had trouble believing that someone who had been to Yale Law School and spent a public career in jobs connected to law could possibly have no opinion on the most controversial legal topic of his generation. And yet somehow those answers not only did not stand in the way of Justice Thomas's confirmation but were seen in some way as good politics.

TOTENBERG: Such good politics that every nominee since then, Republican or Democratic, has followed that example to one degree or another. The Thomas hearings also established what came to be known as the Pinpoint Strategy, named for the tiny Georgia town where Thomas was raised.


THOMAS: We lived in one room in a tenement, and we had a common bathroom in the backyard, which was unworkable and unusable.

TOTENBERG: Now take a listen to Sonia Sotomayor describing her early life, Samuel Alito describing his parents, and John Roberts describing the Indiana fields near his upper middle-class home.


SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I grew up in modest circumstances in a Bronx housing project. My father...

SAMUEL ALITO: My father was brought to this country as an infant. He grew up in poverty. Although he graduated...

JOHN ROBERTS: And as I grew older, those endless fields came to represent for me the limitless possibilities of our great land. Growing up...

TOTENBERG: So as much as we focus on the Thomas-Hill hearings, the Supreme Court confirmation process has been shaped more by what happened at the Thomas hearings before the world ever heard of Anita Hill. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP: Of course in the end, after all the controversy, Clarence Thomas got the job, and tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we'll look at Justice Thomas's 20-year record on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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