By Jim Morrill, The Charlotte Observer
Decades before the #MeToo movement, and long before Time magazine honored “the Silence Breakers,” there were Anita Hill and Angela Wright.
In 1991 both women were in Washington to accuse Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior.
Hill was allowed to testify before the Senate committee considering his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wright, who lives in Charlotte, was not.
Thomas was confirmed and is now the court’s second-longest serving justice.
But people are taking another look at the allegations in light of the #MeToo movement and of other women who have come forward with their own testimonies about Thomas.
This week a New York magazine story by Jill Abramson, the former editor of The New York Times, laid out a case that Thomas lied during his confirmation hearing and asked whether it’s time “to talk seriously about impeachment.”
Writing later in HuffPost, Wright – now Angela Wright-Shannon – answered that question in a column headlined: “Clarence Thomas Sexually Harassed Me. Yes, He Should Be Impeached.”
Their stories come as women around the country have leveled accusations of sexual harassment, or worse, at men in positions of power. Dozens of prominent men in Hollywood, the media, politics and other fields have been held to account. Many, including a U.S. senator, have lost their jobs.
While it’s unlikely Thomas will be impeached, Wright-Shannon wrote, “The Me Too movement has underscored the depth and breadth of sexual harassment in our society.”
“Finally,” she said, “women are being heard and believed.”
It was Hill’s Senate testimony against Thomas that gripped public attention in 1991. She testified that when she worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission he repeatedly made inappropriate remarks, discussed scenes from porn films and talked about “his own sexual prowess.”
Thomas called the accusations “preposterous” and denied them under oath.
Abramson called the hearing “the first moment in American history when we collectively, truly grappled with sexual harassment.”
While Hill testified, Wright-Shannon waited in a Washington lawyer’s office for her turn.
Wright-Shannon was an assistant metro editor of the Observer and an aspiring columnist. She’d worked for Thomas at the EEOC. When somebody leaked an unpublished column that detailed her own experiences with him there, she was subpoenaed to testify.
She told Senate investigators at the time that Thomas pressured her for dates, asked her breast size and showed up at her apartment uninvited.
Abramson said Wright would have been “the most devastating witness.”
Wright, she wrote, “would have killed the nomination.”
But even though a former EEOC colleague corroborated Wright’s account, her turn never came.
“Members of the Senate confirmation committee immediately went on the attack after learning of me and my willingness to testify,” Wright-Shannon wrote in HuffPost. “I was characterized as a revengeful, foul-mouthed incompetent seizing an opportunity to strike back at the boss who had fired her.…
“It was obvious that nothing that I had to say would matter to the men on the Senate confirmation panel. I long ago lost real hope for justice and vindication. All those men were white, and the women who accused Thomas were all African-American. And, when the accusers are women of color, justice is not just delayed; it’s often denied outright.”
Thomas claimed he’d fired Wright-Shannon for using a homophobic slur. She denies it, and points to the recommendation he later gave her as “an excellent employee.” Thomas could not be reached for this article.
It’s a perspective that has only grown with time.
Back then, she told the Observer this week, “I was certainly aware that as black women we were challenging the white man’s choice, who was Clarence Thomas. But I didn’t really stop to think then that had there been white women, there might have been a different outcome. Now it’s juxtaposing with the #MeToo movement and it’s just so obvious.”
She calls Thomas’s impeachment “a pipe dream” and “as realistic as the one where President (Donald) Trump is impeached for bragging about sexually assaulting women.”
Abramson writes about the accounts of two other women, including a white woman named Moira Smith, who have offered accounts of inappropriate behavior by Thomas. Both shared their experiences long after the 1991 confirmation.
“The fact that they’re coming out now is interesting (and) it’s a little irritating because the damage has been done,” Wright-Shannon said. “My question is, Where were you back in 1991?”