Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing 'Empowered Women' and Panel Member Arlen Specter Still Amazed by Reactions

Bruising confirmation "has left very deep scars on both of them."

ByABC News
October 24, 2011, 10:01 AM

Oct. 24, 2011— -- Congress had never seen anything like it: an explosive mix of sex, race and politics in the Senate Caucus Room, broadcast live to tens of millions of Americans.

"It is difficult to remember a more grotesquely riveting day before a U.S. Senate committee," Ted Koppel said on ABC's "Nightline" after Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas presented their initial "she said, he said" testimony.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Thomas' first full day on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two decades later, the legacy of his combative confirmation hearing -- in which Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment and Thomas complained it was a "legal lynching" -- still echoes across politics, the workplace and American culture.

Former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who played a leading role in the hearing as a Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee (in 2009, he became a Democrat), said he is amazed at how many people approach him about what happened during those contentious days in October 1991.

"It made a hell of an impact on a lot of people," Specter said.

"It was worldwide. People have said to me they were in Timbuktu, and they were watching," he said. "Last year, the night before the primary in Pennsylvania, I was heading into a rally in Pittsburgh and a woman walked up to me, and in front of all the cameras there, she said, 'I'll never forgive you for what you did to Anita Hill.'"

The stakes were high. President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall, the court's first black justice and a staunch liberal. Thomas was an ardent conservative, and Democrats fretted that he would shift the court to the right.

But his confirmation hearing actually had been completed when news reports leaked the bombshell allegations; that one of Thomas' co-workers had accused him of sexual harassment during interviews with the FBI. The Judiciary Committee agreed to take more testimony.

Facing a bank of 14 senators, all of them men, Hill alleged a series of vulgar advances by Thomas, including, she said, his graphic discussions of pornography, when she worked for him at two government agencies a decade earlier. "On several occasions Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess," she said.

Thomas was equally adamant in denying the accusations. "This is a circus, it's a national disgrace," he bristled. "And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

With no resolution of their divergent accounts, the Senate voted largely along party lines, 52-48, to confirm Thomas, the narrowest confirmation vote in a century.

The repercussions were immediate. One enduring legacy: the emergence of women in politics. In 1991, all but two of the Senate's 100 members were men, and there were only 30 women in the House. But the first national election after the hearings turned 1992 into the "Year of the Woman." Upset by the treatment of Hill, a record number of women ran for public office; four women were elected to the Senate, and 19 women were elected to the House.

Today, there are 17 women senators,77 women members of the House, and a woman is the national chairman of the Democratic Party.

"The Thomas hearing helped to transform the role of women in politics and government. It empowered women," said Steven Wermiel, a fellow in law and government at American University's law school who covered the Thomas nomination as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.