From Clarence Thomas to Trump and Back Again


Logo from the #NotOkay campaign

Twenty-five years ago, Clarence Thomas was in the process of being confirmed to the Supreme Court when Anita Hill, a lawyer who had worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with Thomas, accused him of sexually harassing her on the job.  The things he did and said—peppering her with sexual innuendo, discussing porn—have become the stuff of national legend.  Despite the accusations, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court.  Thomas, a conservative, replaced retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, an icon of the civil rights movement who played a pivotal role in Brown v. Board of Education. His appointment was now politically significant not only because it changed the makeup of the court, but because it had happened despite Hill’s accusations.

The women of this country felt they had been sent a clear message—your experiences with sexual harassment don’t matter—and they responded by filing record numbers of harassment suits. They also ran for office in unprecedented numbers and won, to such an extent that 1992 was dubbed the Year of the Woman.  In recent years, this Year of the Woman concept has resurfaced, as it seems despite the heady sense of taking on the institutionalization of sexism that the Thomas hearings symbolized, women are still subject to rampant sexual harassment.

Nothing could make that harassment more clear than Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency. In a now-infamous video from 2005, Trump is talking about women in a way that condones sexual assault—kissing and grabbing women without their consent. Much like the Anita Hill hearings, this video has brought sexual harassment to the forefront of our national consciousness.  The Washington Post, which obtained the video from 2005 and made it public, has run an article entitled “This is rape culture,” that details the everyday experience women have with sexual assault, shared via social media with the hashtag #NotOkay.  The outpouring prompted the creation of this video by Humanity for Hillary.

Like the Hill hearings, Trump’s statements have motivated more women to go public with their experiences, and to find power in speaking their truth. Many of these women are accusing Trump of sexual assault.  And in an interesting case of history echoing itself, a woman named Moira Smith has recently accused Clarence Thomas of groping her at a 1999 dinner party.  Thomas, unsurprisingly, denies the allegations.

One thing is patently clear:  whether the year is 1999 or 2016, women have plenty of stories to tell about sexual harassment and assault.  We live in a culture that condones sexual harassment with a “look the other way,” or “boys will be boys” mentality—that’s why Trump thought he could justify his statements with the idea that it was all just “locker room talk.” Michele Obama countered this notion beautifully in a recent speech, and many men have spoken up against the idea that they would talk that way, in a locker room or anywhere else.

The outpouring of stories about sexual assault, and the immediate response of the #NotOKay conversation, give me hope that we might be due for another Year of the Woman—this time, because we have elected a female president instead of the most blatantly misogynistic candidate this country has ever seen.  Change happens slowly, and tends to backtrack on itself before making a surge forward into the unknown.  We are due for such a surge.  As we move into a time in which sexual assault and harassment are not overlooked, let us do so with the words of Rebecca Walker, written in the aftermath of the Thomas hearings, foremost in our minds:  “Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to re-mind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power.”

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