We Can’t Forget The Ways Joe Biden Failed Anita Hill

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden stood on stage at the Oscars and introduced Lady Gaga’s performance of her song “Til It Happens To You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. Biden was speaking out against campus sexual assault, as the face of The White House’s It’s On Us campaign.

The VP has been lauded as a champion for women over the last 20+ years. He did, after all, author the groundbreaking Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) — which provided $1.6 billion toward the investigation and prosecution of domestic and sexual violence crimes — in addition to his now taking the lead on the It’s On Us campaign.

But this past Saturday, HBO aired Confirmation, a movie about the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment hearings, and reminded the world that there is a glaring black mark on Biden’s record when it comes to being an advocate for ending violence against women.

In 1991, Joe Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was tasked with holding the hearings regarding Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas. As Confirmation shows — in a much nicer light than it needed to — Biden was at best negligent, and at worst, complicit, in the spectacular mess that those hearings became.

When Biden was informed of Hill’s allegations against Thomas, his first reaction was to try to bury them. His next was to say that they were not serious enough to warrant a postponement of the vote to confirm Thomas. In their book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, authors Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson write that Biden has said that he believed Hill’s allegations. But, they continue, “If Biden did believe Hill, as he later claimed, he apparently did not see sexual harassment as a disqualifying offense. Even after Hill surfaced, he neither pushed for an investigation to determine if the harassment had in fact taken place nor shared what information was already known with his colleagues before the vote.”

Mayer and Abramson conclude that, “this decision suggests that Biden was seriously out of touch . . . with the mounting anger among women in the country.” Biden also made several other missteps due to an apparent desire not to make too many waves with the Republicans, including agreeing to let Thomas testify first and agreeing to keep questions about Thomas’ sexual history and preferences off the table.

And, perhaps most glaringly, Biden made the decision to not have the three other women who had come forward with sexual harassment allegations against Thomas testify. Among them was Angela Wright, who had been subpoenaed and flown to Washington, D.C. as a less-than-enthusiastic participant. He also elected not to have mental-health professionals who were experts in harassment and trauma explain how Hill’s behavior was typical of someone in her situation. This decision left Hill alone to be ripped to shreds by both the Senate Republicans and the press, to be painted as a deranged liar or a “crazy” woman with “erotomania.”

How do we reconcile what we know about Biden now, of his stellar record on women’s rights, with what happened in 1991? His good work should not be erased, there’s no doubt, but the portrait of him as a politician and his impact on our culture is incomplete without taking the Thomas hearings into consideration.

We have to complicate the narrative.

Joe Biden has done great things for women in the United States, but he also failed spectacularly in his role investigating sexual harassment allegations against a judge who would ultimately be elected to the highest court in the nation. His behavior also resulted in the vilification of a black woman by an already racist and misogynist country. Biden’s failures put a black woman in the position to be eaten alive and traumatized by the nation — he actively harmed a person with a marginalized identity, instead of using his power and privilege to protect her and do right by her.

Hill herself has since spoken about this, telling Rolling Stone:

“Here I was, an African-American woman essentially being accused by Clarence Thomas of provoking his lynching. Historically, that is just a fallacy . . . it ignores the history of sexual abuse of African-American women . . . Seventy percent of the public when they were polled after the hearings believed Clarence Thomas [and] were willing to dismiss my experience as insignificant, both racially and in terms of gender.”

Biden’s unwillingness to ruffle feathers and do his due diligence when it came to investigating the allegations against Thomas led to the appointment of a man who very well might be a sexual predator to the Supreme Court of the United States. That appointment has had a lasting effect on the rights of marginalized individuals in this country, as Thomas is a conservative justice. He indicated during his confirmation hearings that he “never thought much” about Roe v. Wade and is staunchly against Affirmative Action and equal marriage.

Perhaps it would be different if Biden had acknowledged the failings of the hearings in the years since. But instead, he has often said they were successful, citing the conversations that began around the issue of sexual harassment following the hearings as an example of their positive impact. In fact, Biden took credit for this conversation last fall when he spoke at a rally against campus sexual assault at The Ohio State University. He said, ‘’During the Clarence Thomas hearings, one of the things that emerged was the issue of sexual harassment. It was the thing that no one wanted to touch. I remember saying to my colleagues, ‘This is so much bigger than a single judge.’ Because of the national debate on that issue, men may still do it . . . but it’s a different place.’’

This retelling of history is a total misrepresentation of his role, which there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate accurately. Not only that, he’s taking credit for a conversation that Anita Hill herself started with her courage to come forward — not Joe Biden, who didn’t even want to pursue the issue if he could avoid it and who didn’t think it was a serious enough issue to warrant concern over Thomas’ nomination. It was Hill’s bravery that resulted in the doubled reports of sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the following year, and Hill’s testimony that led to the eventual implementation of sexual harassment trainings at companies all over the country.

So yes, let’s celebrate the work that Biden has done in regards to VAWA, including the updates to it over the years. That legislation has been life changing for many women, allowing them to seek services and safety that they might not have otherwise had access to. Let’s applaud his insistence that we believe survivors of sexual violence and hold our communities accountable for ending that violence. But let’s also acknowledge where he has failed — he failed to support a survivor, and a black survivor at that, in a very public, high stakes way.

None of his good work can erase that from his history. But if he wants to alter the narrative around those hearings, he can start by acknowledging his role in them and apologizing for the profound ways in which he let women in this country down.

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Lead image: flickr/Marc Nozell

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