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How the Clarence Thomas Hearings Missed the Dance of Workplace Relations

HBO's 'Confirmation' reminds us of what was left unsaid

By Jill Smolowe

A quarter century later, the gripping testimony of Judge Clarence Thomas and Professor Anita Hill is once again entering our living rooms, courtesy of the new HBO film, Confirmation. Back then, though Americans differed about whether Thomas lied or Hill made it all up, we were convinced that the (in)famous 1991 Senate hearings heightened our sensitivity to sexual harassment. The resulting swell in harassment lawsuits, proudly touted at the film’s conclusion, suggests that the national teach-in has provided our children and grandchildren with useful instruction about gender relations in the workplace.

I don’t see it that way.

The Whole Truth

And I didn’t think the hearings would have that effect in 1991, as I was writing the Hill-Thomas cover story for Time, Sex Lies & Politics. Back then, I found it impossible to believe that the truth lay entirely in either Hill’s cool, unemotional testimony or Thomas’ indignant, categorical denials. I hungered for a sense of the music that accompanied their workplace dance, the little grace (and graceless) notes that set the stage for such wildly divergent accounts.

I find the reenacted face-off no better as a guide to understanding the way office relationships between women and men — my daughter, your son — usually unfold as a series of Rashomon-style signals, tinged with nuance and ambiguity, contradiction and confusion.

Certainly, the Hill-Thomas battle offered no such shading. The Hill Doctrine suggested that any unwelcome advance or off-color remark constituted a degree of sexual harassment that any reasonable woman would find offensive. The Thomas Doctrine suggested that in an era of spin control, if you say it loud enough and often enough, any story can be made to stick.

What We Didn't Learn

Because the polarization of these positions left no room for the delicate interplay of the sexes, we learned little about how sexual harassment tends to play out in the workplace.

Though Hill provided a credible script, the tonal quality of her testimony lacked believability. Her recollections of her days in Thomas’ employ at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were refracted through the lens of a 35-year-old tenured law professor whose professional accomplishments had given her polish, confidence and job security. Absent was any sense of the 25-year-old who, fresh out of law school, was encountering her first job and her first boss.

If she was like most other newcomers to an office setting, Hill was eager to fit in, eager to make her mark, eager to please her boss. Had Thomas used the hearings to open the window even a crack on their daily dealings — had he allowed that there may have been comments and actions that may have been misunderstood, misinterpreted or misconstrued — we might have seen some of Hill’s eagerness and naïveté. We might have caught a glimpse of where communications can, and often do, go wrong in the workplace.

Just picture the scene. Day in and day out, Hill pops into Thomas’ office with a ready smile. Thomas reads into her professional enthusiasm the hint of something more personal. He makes suggestive comments. Hill responds with the same lines she offered the Senate committee, only in this version she isn’t so cool and unflappable. After all, she’s probably a bit flattered that her powerful boss finds her attractive.

She does not (as she stated in her testimony) find Thomas’ interest repugnant. Rather, she is guided by a rule many women bring to the workplace: subordinates shouldn’t date their bosses.

But Hill is young, new to office politics, and unseasoned in the art of parrying unwelcome advances. So a few comments slide by before she realizes that Thomas is coming on to her. Maybe she finds Thomas attractive; maybe she doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. Either way, Hill knows she wants no part of his interest. It makes her uneasy.


Anita Hill's Dilemma

Here’s the conundrum: If she forcefully tells Thomas to take a hike, she knows she risks embarrassing, and perhaps even hurting, him. She fears that if she doesn’t handle his overture gingerly, she may anger or alienate her boss, which could spell grave consequences for her fledgling career. At 25, Hill lacks the artillery to joke her way out of the situation, the confidence to storm out of the room mid-meeting and the experience to state her position quite as matter-of-factly as she did before national cameras in 1991.

Instead, she offers Thomas the same script she offered the Judiciary Committee, but her delivery is not quite the same. She demurs politely, a bit shyly. Thinking he detects a hint of coquetry, Thomas tries again. This time, Hill explains her no-dating-the-boss policy. She smiles apologetically. Maybe blushes. Lowers her eyes. Her words say one thing, but her body language suggests to Thomas that he still stands a chance.

So, he tries again, offering off-color remarks in the hope that what he regards as humor will break through Hill’s reserve and make her laugh. Perhaps this provokes her to protest more boldly. But fearful of losing her job, Hill tries to make it up to Thomas the next day by being particularly nice — just to show there are no hurt feelings. He mistakes her friendliness … and on it goes. Two people, each dancing to very different music.

What Would Have Helped Americans

Had such a portrait of misaimed and misread signals emerged, Hill’s harassment charges and Thomas’ denials could both have seemed genuine. The truth would have been far murkier — but it would have been a truth we all could recognize.

The American public could have debated where harmless flirtation, well-intended humor and collegiality stop and unwanted advances, offensive innuendo and hostile power games begin. Reasonable people could have disagreed about whether tales of Coke cans and Long Dong Silver are inherently shocking, or if, like a controversial piece of art, the offense lies in the eye of the beholder. In other words, we would have gained valuable insight into the confused stuff of which real office drama is made.

Thomas robbed us of that opportunity. By offering racial arguments that had no bearing on the sexual harassment charges at hand and supplying no specific responses to Hill’s very specific charges, he blocked useful instruction for the rest of us about the perils men and women confront daily on the job.

Had Thomas allowed that the texture of his relationship with Hill went beyond dry exchanges (a fact implied by his statement that he had visited Hill’s home on “a number of instances”), we might have gained a better understanding of the clouded signals that give way to confused communication and, ultimately, bruised feelings with our colleagues at work.

The Hill-Thomas showdown, as Confirmation reminds, may have awakened Americans to the rampant existence of sexual harassment in the workplace. But 25 years later, we, our kids and our grandkids are still grappling with the very issues that the Hill-Thomas (in)sensitivity training session failed to explore.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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