It's like a cultural time capsule has opened, Thomas vs. Hill. Only this time Virginia Thomas, the Supreme Court justice's wife, is doing battle with professor Anita Hill. How nostalgic. Should we all break out the shoulder pads, crank up the Pearl Jam and tell old gender war stories?
What was Virginia Thomas — or "Ginni" as she referred to herself — thinking when she called Hill's Brandeis University office at 7:31 a.m. on the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend? The lady Thomas left a voice-mail message suggesting that Hill lied in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Virginia's husband, Clarence. She asked Hill for an apology and "some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband." Then added sportingly, "Okay, have a good day."
You really can't blame Hill for wondering if this was really Virginia Thomas or some crackpot. Turns out it was both.
But the incident made me recall those hearings, when a room full of male senators put real national issues aside in order to grapple with whether Clarence Thomas said to Hill: "Who put pubic hair on my Coke?" Sen. Orrin Hatch, at his most unhinged, suggested Hill stole her story from the book The Exorcist, a copy of which Hatch lifted in the air and quoted a line about an "alien pubic hair" in a glass of gin.
At the time, I thought the sexual harassment hoopla was a side show. As a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas was going to vote to diminish civil liberties and women's abortion rights. That was what made him unworthy of confirmation. (And he has sure lived up to expectations.)
Still, I believed Anita Hill's testimony, which she was subpoenaed to give. I believed that as a young lawyer under Clarence Thomas' supervision first at the Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she had to listen to his graphic descriptions of pornographic movies and other ickiness.
Since then, investigative journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson corroborated Hill's account in the bestselling 1994 book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. The authors tracked down two EEOC lawyers who also heard Thomas' famous Coke can pubic hair reference. They also found evidence of his interest in pornography and other damning details that reinforced Hill's testimony.
As to Virginia Thomas, I had always guessed that despite her husband's angry denials before the committee, she knew Hill was telling the truth. I assumed the wife knows those things, although Clarence Thomas wouldn't be the first man to keep his porn interest and potty mouth hidden from his wife.
So, why did Virginia Thomas decided to revisit this unfinished business now? That's something only she knows.
But her bizarre act did prompt me to look back nearly 20 years and reflect on the way gender issues like sexual harassment and comparable worth — an unworkable theory that said female-dominated jobs like office clerk should be paid on a par with male-dominated jobs of equal responsibility like computer technician — have faded. With women now nearly 50 percent of the work force, and accounting for a majority of college graduates, there has been a gender detente at work. Hill faced a Senate that had only two women. Today there are 17, and women have made inroads at all levels of government.
The common problems afflicting workers in this economy have nudged gender issues aside as well. Just about everyone worries about keeping a job and retaining a foothold in the middle class. In 1991, this decline of the worker was already in motion but there was no way to know how bad it would get.
Women workers are more equal to men today than in 1991 — equally bad off. Times are tough enough that Americans of both sexes can't worry about their boorish bosses. Hanging on to a job is about keeping one's head down and mouth shut. Just as Anita Hill did until the Senate came knocking.