Last week, former Vice President Joe Biden expressed his regrets that Anita Hill, a distinguished law professor, did not receive fair treatment during her widely publicized 1991 testimony against Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who was then undergoing judicial confirmation. Hill, who will speak at the University later this month, accused Thomas of repeated sexual harassment.
According to Hill, when Thomas was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he asked her out repeatedly. When she continually refused, he forced her to give justifications and explanations for turning him down. He would often bring up sexual topics in graphic detail and discuss pornographic images involving women and animals. He even boasted about his own “sexual prowess.” Hill’s efforts to shift the subject to more professional matters, such as education, proved futile. Thomas was confirmed, and Hill’s testimony was disregarded, a story we know all too well.
With a level head and impressive poise, Hill sat there while an all-white, all-male committee interrogated her with absurd and offensive questions. Former Senator Arlen Specter laughed and mitigated Thomas’s talk of “women’s large breasts” in the workplace, arguing they were commonly used words and “not so bad.” Specter continued to probe Hill and question the severity of her claims, picking apart little details in her FBI statement and using them against her. Instead of listening to her testimony, he was too focused on catching her in a lie.
Former Senator Howell Heflin questioned her motives: “Are you a scorned woman?... Do you have a martyr complex?” Senator Orrin Hatch went so far as to accuse Hill of stealing material from the novel “The Exorcist.” Hatch is the same senator who later referred to Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who accused Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, as an “attractive” witness.
Looking back on the hearing, Biden recently stated, “I wish I could have done something,” and explained that he regrets that Hill did not receive “the kind of hearing she deserved.” Biden’s language makes it seem as if he was just a spectator. He was, however, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the man who presided over Hill’s testimony.
The structure of the hearing was poor from the start, as Biden seemed set on getting it over with as fast as possible. As Hill’s family members filed in, he urged them to find seats on the side, instead of sitting in the front with her. He constantly insisted, “we must get this hearing moving.”
When female lawyers expressed their frustrations to Biden about the rushed atmosphere, Biden said he gave his word to Thomas’ chief sponsor, Senator John Danforth ’58, at the gym that it would be a “very quick hearing” and be done before Columbus Day. Clearly, he cared more about maintaining relations with his friends, as he so called them during the hearing, than giving Hill the justice he now claims she deserved.
Last year, Biden said he wished he could have done more to “prevent those questions” and “the way they asked them.” However, he had the ability to control the proceedings, but chose instead to succumb to those around him. During the hearing, he concluded, “it is appropriate to ask Professor Hill anything any member wishes to ask her,” setting the stage for her own degradation. When Specter, the senator who raised the most inappropriate questions, asked Biden to confirm his 30-minute limit, Biden granted Specter as much time as he wanted.
Instead of supporting Hill and elevating her voice, Biden allowed men to take up all the space in the room. He refused witness testimonies from three other women with corroborating stories. He perhaps decided that it would have taken too long.
In his efforts to make a public apology, Biden blamed the era, saying that “we knew a lot less about the extent of sexual harassment back then, over 30 years ago.” He adds that the committee didn’t “fully understand what the hell it was all about.”
I’m not buying it.
Hill’s testimony was a revolutionary case, not because it was the first instance of harassment in the workplace; rather, because it was one of the first times when someone came forward about it on the national stage. During the hearing, former Senator Dennis DeConcini recalled his mother’s experience with sexual harassment 60 years prior to the hearing and how it had still affected her after all those years.
Although sexual harassment has pervaded the workplace for decades and decades, it did not have an official name until 1975. By 1977, the courts had finally allowed women to sue their employers for this once unnamed phenomenon. Biden and his fellow senators had plenty of time — 16 years — to brush up on their “harassment knowledge” before the Hill-Thomas hearings.
At the very least, Biden has acknowledged the severity of what happened to Hill in 1991, and when it comes to the rights of women, he has been a helpful leader. In 1994, he wrote the Violence Against Women Act, which improved the ways in which violence against women was investigated and handled. In 2014, he and Obama launched the “It’s On Us” campaign against the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.
And yet, after all this time, Biden has still failed to issue Hill a personal apology. “It’s become sort of a running joke in the household when someone rings the doorbell and we’re not expecting company,” says Hill. “‘Oh,’ we say, ‘is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?’”
Biden has offered a couple of apologies in public. He even continues to mention that he voted against Thomas. And while this is more than some male politicians have done or will ever do, it’s about what happens behind closed doors, when no one is watching.
It’s about what you say in the privacy of a locker room or a gym. It’s about what you stand up for in the sole company of your boys’ club. It’s about being a good man, whether or not you become the next president of the United States.
Winnie Brandfield-Harvey is a junior Wilson School concentrator from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.