When apprised of Hill’s accusations, Senator Howard Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat, said, “If that’s sexual harassment, half the senators on Capitol Hill could be accused.” With 26 years of perspective, new data on congressional settlements, and testimony from women in politics, it seems Metzenbaum was right, though not for the reasons he believed.
Thomas denounced the proceedings as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” but Hill came out at least as badly bruised as him, with Republican senators among her assailants. Senator Orrin Hatch called her the tool of “slick lawyers.” Senator Arlen Specter flatly called her a perjurer. Senator Alan Simpson said, “I really am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill. I’ve got letters hanging out of my pocket. I’ve got faxes. I’ve got statements from Tulsa saying: Watch out for this woman.” Other observers questioned why Hill had continued to work for Thomas and moved to the EEOC with him despite her allegations.
In tone and in content—questioning Hill’s motives, and casting doubt on her career moves—these attacks echo those lodged against women who have accused men like Weinstein and former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. These defenses have not worked as well recently. There is a more of a default to believe accusers, in part because so many accusations have proven true. The dilemma faced by an underling who depends on a powerful boss’s mentorship while also hating his harassment is better understood. While attacks on women who make public accusations have not disappeared by any measure, they are more likely to earn a rebuke today.
Thomas’s confirmation and the attacks on Hill did produce a quick political backlash. With new visibility, sexual-harassment complaints to the EEOC—ironically, Hill’s and Thomas’s former employer—spiked. The following year, a large crop of women ran for Congress, inspired in part by the specter of aging white men grilling Hill, and four were elected to the Senate.
Hill went on to a successful career as a law professor. Thomas, of course, was ensconced on the court, where he has become an important and reliable vote for the conservative bloc. There have been almost no new allegations against him since his confirmation, but it’s tough to know who would report new allegations. In 2016, a woman accused Thomas of groping her at a dinner party in 1999. Friends of the woman, Moira Smith, recalled her telling them of it at the time. Thomas denied that accusation as well, calling it “preposterous.”
Thomas’s current workplace is very different from EEOC. Supreme Court justices hire a crop of law clerks every year, and clerks on every level, though especially the Supreme Court, are tight-lipped about what happens in chambers. Heidi Bond, who accused Kozinski of harassment, wrote that the judge’s strict conception of omertà held her back from speaking about his behavior. “I’d assumed that what he said about judicial confidentiality was correct, that I had no choice but to hold onto my silence,” she wrote.