Perhaps especially in the comparatively new world of female professional achievement, in which a woman might be in a position, as an equivalently educated professional peer of a judicial nominee to the Supreme Court, to offer testimony that could imperil his career, marriage remained the familiar institution that might comfortably balance out this new kind of parity, and would offer the official male validation and abrogate her questioners’ ability to depict her as a spinster fantasist.
In raising questions about her marital status and her mental stability, Hill wrote, senators were “attempting to establish a relationship between marriage, values, and credibility” and prompt people to wonder “why I, a thirty-five-year-old Black woman, had chosen to pursue a career and to remain single—an irrelevant shift of focus that contributed to the conclusion that I was not to be believed.” Indeed, Hill’s testimony was not believed by the members of the committee, at least not enough to make an impact on their decision.
As Alan Simpson urged the committee, citing the many warnings he claimed to have received about Hill, “Watch out for this woman!
”6 In the early 1990s, there were so many women to watch out for.
Instead, her appearance had a lasting impact on the country and its power structures.
The term sexual harassment entered the lexicon and the American consciousness, allowing women, married and single, to make sense of and lodge objections to workplace harassment; it offered us a view of how behavior long viewed as harmless was actually a form of discrimination and subjugation that hurt women as a class.
On October 11, 1991, a thirty-five-year-old law professor, Anita Faye Hill, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the sexual harassment she’d experienced while working for Clarence Thomas, a D. She was valedictorian of her high-school class and attended Yale Law School, worked for Thomas at both the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and taught contract law at the University of Oklahoma. As cameras recorded every second, broadcasting to a rapt and tense nation, Hill sat before the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Panel and told them in a careful, clear voice of the sexually crude ways in which Thomas had spoken to her during the years she worked for him; she detailed her former boss’s references to pornographic movie stars, penis size, and pubic hair in professional contexts.
In turn, she was pilloried by the conservative press, spoken to with skepticism and insult by many on the committee, and portrayed by other witnesses as irrational, sexually loose, and perhaps a sufferer of erotomania,1 a rare psychological disorder that causes women to fantasize sexual relationships with powerful men.
The eponymous heroine of CBS’s Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, was about to give birth to a baby without being married—or romantically attached—to the child’s father.
Quayle was concerned that in doing so, Murphy, who he noted “supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman,” was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”7 Quayle’s comments would land him, fictional Murphy Brown, and her fictional baby, Avery, on the front of the New York Times, making the character’s unmarried status far more emblematic than it would have been otherwise.
The percentage of women between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four who were married had fallen from about 87 percent in 19 to 73 percent in 1990.5 “Women began, in the nineties, to embrace their own sexuality and sexual expression in a different way,” Hill told me in 2013.
Hill may have looked little like the recent past, but she was very much the face of the future, surely part of what made her discomfiting enough to send senators into paroxysms.
Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court days after her appearance before the Judiciary.