Watching Anita Hill In The Clarence Thomas Confirmation Hearings, Numbers Of Women Were Determined To Turn Anger Into Political Action But The Question Is, How Long Will It Last?

Posted: April 30, 1992

A lot of women still remember yelling at their television sets last fall.

They just couldn't believe they were watching this smug panel of middle- aged, white men grilling a young, black, female professor about a topic that led to talk of Coke cans and pubic hairs.

Now, as the anger ricochets through the political system, some people are wondering how long the fury will last.

"The major part of it was looking at those 14 white men dealing with an issue they know nothing about," said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. "They showed complete insensitivity to the issue. Even the ones being sympathetic were being so foolish. They were talking about something that has been women's experience ever since they've been in the labor force and they just, as they say, didn't get it, and they didn't know it, and they should have."

Most women said it wasn't any one thing said by Sen. Arlen Specter or Sen. Orrin Hatch or Sen. Alan Simpson or any of the other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who grilled Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Because even with the sound turned off, there were still 14 white guys in suits and one black woman in the line of fire.

"Sometimes people respond more to a graphic," said Rita Green, president of the Philadelphia chapter of NOW. "The view of our legislators as an all- male, all-white group hit home. There was no way to miss it."

The hearings also brought back memories of sexual harassment for many women.

"Women feel helpless to fight on a personal level, but they were able to fight it with their vote" on Tuesday, said Lillian Ciarrochi, a past president of the local chapter of NOW and the manager of accounting for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. "I think that is the key to the whole thing: that women who have these very strong feelings could - by voting - do something about it."

The anger was in part responsible for the victory of Lynn Yeakel in Tuesday's primary against Lt. Gov. Mark Singel. Now she will run against Specter, who may have injured himself on his own sword while wielding it against Hill on behalf of the Bush administration.

Specter may be the lightning rod for the women's anger because of his prosecutorial role in the hearings. His role may have partially undone his own strong record on abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, family and medical leave, women's health research, prevention of domestic violence and other issues of importance to women.

Nationwide, the simmering anger has been partly responsible for Carol Moseley Braun's stunning upset in the Illinois primary against a powerful incumbent politician.

Of course, other elements have contributed to the women's victories, including widespread voter dissatisfaction with the economy and the status quo. But in Pennsylvania, many women said they voted for Yeakel because she wasn't Specter.

"After the Arlen Specter incident, I felt that there was a reaction out there among women throughout the nation, that there would be incredible support for anyone who would take him on," said Doris Pechkurow, past Mid- Atlantic regional director of NOW and a lawyer with Kaufman Coren and Ress, a Philadelphia law firm.

"It's amazing how he really, in a manner never forseen by him, really caused a reaction, a rippling effect that won't be squelched for a while," Pechkurow said.

Even Republican women have expressed anger about the Thomas hearings and Specter's role in them.

"It was awful," said Ernesta Ballard, a longtime GOP activist. "I was revolted. Of course, I'm revolted by a lot of Republicans. Specter was a good senator right up until then."

Ballard, who has worked for many years to get more women into politics, wouldn't say whether she would abandon her party to vote for Yeakel in November, or whether she thought other Republican women would do so.

"Oh, I don't know," Ballard said. "In the fall, you just make up your mind, whether you want to vote for a good woman like Lynn Yeakel, or perpetuate the status quo."

But Melanie Akers, a program associate at Women's Alliance for Job Equity in Center City, said the televised hearings made many women realize that they lacked power not only in their workplaces but in their government.

"So many women have experienced harassment in the workplace that they could directly identify with Anita Hill. They said to themselves, 'Look, here is this intelligent woman who is a conservative, tenured professor, who had corroborating witnesses, and she's not being treated with respect,' " Akers said. "This image has really stayed with women. This is not something that is going to disappear."

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