Former STLPR editor reflects on experience covering Anita Hill hearings, connections to this week
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with former St. Louis Public Radio executive editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel, who was a Washington reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1991.
During that period, Freivogel covered confirmation hearings involving then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual misconduct by Anita Hill. Freivogel published a column in the Post-Dispatch shortly after Hill’s testimony.
“You might think that the allegations against Clarence Thomas set off such a firestorm because they're about sex,” the piece, which appeared in the Oct. 14, 1991, edition of the paper, began. “But like almost everything that matters in politics and public policy, the real issue is power.”
In light of this week’s hearings with nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who also has been accused of sexual misconduct, Freivogel reflected on what occurred during the Thomas hearings 27 years ago and discussed how some of the same issues still resonate today.
“[The hearings have] changed in some respects – it’s no longer acceptable to vilify the accuser in the same way, although yesterday they substituted [U.S. Sen.] Dianne Feinstein as the evil woman and attacked her,” Freivogel said. “But what they did with the information was pretty much the same.”
Like so many Americans on Thursday, Freivogel spent much of the day listening to testimony by Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh. She said she found it a “wrenching” experience and found herself asking again and again, “What is this hearing for?”
“I think we went into it thinking it would clarify some facts, but it clearly wasn’t set up to clarify facts, so I think in both [Thomas and Kavanaugh] cases it was an acknowledgment that something had to be done publicly to address these allegations,” Freivogel said. “But also in the backdrop there was this freight train roaring ahead to continue with the nomination.”
Read the entirety of Freivogel’s original St. Louis Post-Dispatch column from 1991, reposted with the newspaper’s permission, here:
By Margaret Wolf Freivogel
October 14, 1991
Washington — YOU MIGHT think that the allegations against Clarence Thomas set off such a firestorm because they're about sex. But like almost everything that matters in politics and public policy, the real issue is power.
Power, linked with sex, is what makes sexual harassment such an explosive subject for women. And many of them exploded with outrage last week when the Senate appeared ready to brush aside allegations that the Supreme Court nominee had harassed Anita F. Hill.
Many men in the Senate, including Missouri Republican John C. Danforth, thought the primary danger lay in giving power to an accusation they believed to be false. As the issue rippled through the country, other men, too, wondered if they could be falsely accused.
But most women reacted out of a sense of their own lack of power. We know we are vulnerable to sexual harassment, and we need the power to fight back. No federal regulation can give it to us if someone as well-spoken, well-groomed and well- respected as Hill is not taken seriously.
For women not yet schooled in the uses and abuses of power, the controversy offered some brutal lessons.
Power is what the 98 percent-male Senate enjoyed even as its members agonized over whether to delay a vote long enough to investigate the matter further.
Power is what seven Democratic women from the House of Representatives lacked when they marched to the Senate to make their views known. There, they found the door to the Democratic caucus barred - a powerful symbol that women are still largely shut out of power on Capitol Hill.
Power is what Thomas held when Hill, then 25, worked for him 10 years ago. His powerful allies in the Senate and the White House couldn't seem to understand why Hill might hesitate to complain, why she might continue to work for Thomas, why she might even telephone him later if her allegations were true.
Maybe they need a lesson in the realities of life without power. In the realm of the vulnerable, protecting your paycheck can be more urgent than protecting your dignity. And the odds of winning a credibility battle against your boss are long. Would Hill have been taken seriously then? Would she be taken seriously now if she were a secretary instead of a professor, a high school dropout instead of a Yale Law School graduate?
For men accustomed to power, the controversy offered some lessons in the anguish of losing it. Danforth, who is accustomed to wielding political power and moral authority, raged on the Senate floor about violations of Senate rules and breaches of decent behavior.
More than his power to control the process had slipped away. The gentlemen's rules under which Danforth wished to play the game were under assault. He had given his word as a gentlemen that Thomas was telling the truth. (And had decided before hearing Hill's side of the story that she was not credible.) But a gentlemen's word was no longer sufficient against the rising wrath of the powerless.
Similarly, some of the men who seemed so nervous about the regulations against sexual harassment seemed to fear losing power. They looked at Hill and saw the nightmare of their own vulnerability - to past indiscretions, to misunderstandings, to the vindictiveness of women they have known.
Now these men are beginning to worry about what life will be like if they must guard their every word and gesture, if they must fear random trouble. They need only ask women to get a clue.
Vulnerable. That's how women feel each of the dozens of times a day when we are forced to make accommodations to avoid trouble.
It begins with something as simple as choosing what to wear. We've learned that clothes must not be too provocative, for any ''he said-she said'' test of credibility, including a rape trial, may turn on something as trivial as the length of your skirt.
Women feel vulnerable as we step onto the street. With a glance in each direction, we hope vigilance will be enough to protect us.
And women feel vulnerable at work, not just to being harassed but more often to being ignored or underrated in a workplace culture where the power, for the most part, still belongs to men.
Indeed, women have accommodated so much and so long to feeling vulnerable that some of us have trouble understanding why men think they have the right to feel carefree. ''They just don't get it,'' many women lamented last week as they struggled to make their points of view known. In their outrage, women demanded what they deserve and what they must have, ultimately, to be sure they will be taken seriously. Equal power.
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