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Law Professor Anita Hill takes the oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. Hill testified before the committee that then-nominee for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.
Jennifer Law/AFP/Getty Images
Katha Pollitt is a longtime contributor to The Nation where her Subject to Debate column appears every other week.
Virginia Thomas' bizarre early-morning voice mail message to Anita Hill, suggesting she apologize for "what you did with my husband" 19 years ago, brought the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings back in all their riveting, enraging glory.
Who could forget Long Dong Silver, the all-male judiciary committee that just "didn't get it," Thomas's famous charge that he was the victim of a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks"?
Hill may not have stopped Thomas from being narrowly confirmed, 52-48, but she had other victories: She directly inspired the so-called Year of the Woman in 1992, which brought record numbers of women into Congress; and, although a New York Times/CBS poll found that only 24 percent believed Hill and 58 percent believed Thomas, her calm dignity in the face of boorish and dismissive questioning brought sexual harassment into the spotlight as it had never been before. As more and more women from all walks of life went public with their own painful and humiliating experiences, laws changed, business practices changed, and the culture changed too.
Or did it, really? After all, the upcoming election, also heralded as a Year of the Woman, features high-profile hard-right Republican women -- to say nothing of Republican men -- who are campaigning to turn back the clock on a range of women's rights. Virginia Thomas herself is the founder and head of Liberty Central, a Tea Party-related activist group, and it's tempting to wonder if her phone message was not an impulse call born of long-simmering grievance, and maybe an ill-timed martini as well, but a political move: dredging up Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandeis, to remind voters of the horrors of Democratic control and, especially, feminism.
In the broader culture, sexual insults to women are discussed more openly, but also uttered more brazenly. "Bitch" and "ho" are practically synonyms for "female"; sexist jeers at female politicians are the stock in trade of radio and TV hosts from Keith Olbermann on the left to Glenn Beck on the right. At Yale last week, pledges to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity paraded around campus shouting "no means yes, yes means anal" and "I f - - - dead women." The Yale administration has yet to officially condemn this outrageous spectacle, and an editorial in the Yale Daily News chastised the university Women's Center as "histrionic" for describing it as "an active call for sexual violence" rather than simply an immature, tasteless stunt by "members of our community" (unlike the feminists?). It's a discouraging thought that the Dekes and the editorial writers are tomorrow's employers -- and maybe, the way things are going, tomorrow's senators and Supreme Court justices, too.