Monday, May 17, 2010

Collateral Damage

In my post immediately before this one, I mentioned my regrets at the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.  This is because that appointment was the stepping stone to Thomas' subsequent appointment to the Supreme Court.  Thomas' Supreme Court hearings in the Senate were a series of galvanizing moments for me.  Rather than focusing on Thomas' real weakness--his lack of legal ability--those opposed to his nomination chose a different tack to try to derail his nomination.   They chose the more volatile issue of the allegation that he had sexually harassed Anita Hill when she worked for him when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC.  As I listened to Anita Hill testify, she could have been speaking about me. 

My experience came early in my legal career.  At my first job.  I had been in a government office in Kentucky  for about a year, when the head of my division was removed and a new supervisor, Ray, was put in place.  He had been in a different part of the office, the criminal section, and he was sent over to my division to inject new life into a program that seemed to be struggling.  Ray and I seemed to hit it off real well.  We were both smart alecks with quick ripostes in conversation.  I thought he might be someone I could learn from, as he'd been an attorney for about 10 years and this was only my second year out of law school.  He was a bit shorter than me, a preppy dresser, and he suffered from a limp caused by a club foot.  Not someone I was personally attracted to, and he was also  married, which was a deal killer as well.

It wasn't until we took an overnight trip to E. Kentucky for a case the spring of 1978, that I learned he regarded our relationship as something more than I did. Over dinner at the motel where we were staying (in separate rooms), he told me, "You know, you and I are going to sleep together before this is all over."   I was young, didn't know what to say without pissing him off,  so I didn't say anything.  That was the wrong thing to do because it only encouraged him.  He began a campaign of conquest.   On the way back to Lexington he got me to drink a few beers with him in his car and then tried to kiss me.  A week or so later, there was an attorney staff meeting and he passed me a folded note.  I opened it up and he had handwritten to me:  "I want to get into your pants."  I was so discombobulated by this that I threw the note away.  Sexual harassment was not  recognized as a  legal issue at the time.  Thus not only was there nothing on the law school casebooks on this, there was not training in the workplace to educate and protect like there is today.  This was 32 years ago.

For a while I managed to evade Ray and didn't formally answer or reject his advances.  During this time I developed a problem with my jaw.  I discovered at a Cincinnati Reds game that I could not open it wide enough to eat a hot dog.  As this problem did not go away after waiting several weeks, I made an appointment and went to see my dentist.  He examined my mouth, and informed me I had a condition called trismus, which was caused by stress .  He asked if I was suffering stress at work.  At this point, I broke down and, sobbing, admitted that I had been under some stress at work.   He prescribed valium. I only took it once because I discovered it just made me woozy and didn't change anything at work.  

Luckily I had a week away from my job that June at a National Institute for Trial Advocacy Seminar at Northwestern Law School in Chicago, which enabled me to get some distance and a better perspective on my situation.  By the time I returned from Chicago, my jaw had relaxed and I had decided what I was going to do.

I told Ray that I was not interested in having a relationship with him.  I thought that would be the end of it but I was wrong.  Ray reassigned  my significant cases, moved me from my window office into an interior, shared office with an investigator, and refused to talk with me whatsoever.   Finally, in August, after a month and half of this sort of retaliation, I quit my job.  I went to my supervisor's boss and told him exactly why I was leaving.  His immediate reaction was, "Well, I guess I can't tell you dirty jokes anymore."   This confirmed my suspicion that if I  made public the real reason for leaving, my career as an attorney would be toast in Kentucky and probably anywhere else for that matter.  I simply knew that I could not continue to work under these conditions.

However,  rather than try to find other employment, I decided to take the  retirement money I had accumulated in the two years of working for the government and use that to travel to Europe.  Which I did.  And while there, through a marvelous stroke of serendipity, I applied and was accepted into an LLM program of International Law (actually more European Community Law) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.  So I managed to take make something good come from a bad situation.  And received an advanced degree, cum laude, that I was able to use to propel me out of Kentucky and find a job in D.C. with the federal government.

But all of the negative memories surfaced 13 years later when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court.  By then I had moved all the way across country, been married with three kids, and had held down three different attorney jobs since leaving Kentucky in 1978.   Ray, too, had gone on to an important local elective office in Kentucky.

Interestingly enough, in 1989 I had travelled to San Diego for training in EEOC law after being appointed the attorney in charge of workplace discrimination in my then-office.  The woman who did the training at UCSD had worked at the EEOC as an attorney under Thomas and she had nothing good to say about his competence.  She never mentioned sexual harassment, but had a lot to say about his legal inabilities.  I called her after his nomination was announced and left a message asking if she would speak out about him, but never heard back from her.  Given what happened to Anita Hill, I am not surprised.

I  tried to do my part by writing to my Senators.  I  found it hard to put my personal experience in the letter I sent  to Slade Gorton trying to explain why Thomas was not ethically qualified to be on the Supreme Court.  Hell, I'm having a damned difficult time of putting it down here right now.  Because I've seen what happens to women like Anita Hill.  But if those of us who have experienced this type of treatment do not speak out about it, then it is like it never happened.  And when someone does speak out, their experience is not recognized or validated. 

A number of  years ago, Judge John Coughenour, a Reagan appointee to the US District Court in the Western District of WA, spoke to the attorneys who I work with.  He said that before his daughter became an attorney, he disbelieved the stories he had  heard concerning sexual harassment in the legal profession.  Never happened to him.  It took his daughter telling him about her experiences to change and make a believer out of him.  I would hope that it does not take your daughter telling you to make a believer out of you.

It happens.  It should not.  And when it does, there should be consequences.  Because there's already enough collateral damage.


Louisa E C said...


Thanks for sharing.

Anita Hill described a common experience in the lives of probably all single women working in male dominated professions of our generation, not just female lawyers.

I agree with you. Before the Clarence Thomas hearings I felt I simply could never afford to speak out about my own similar experiences. After the Clarence Thomas hearings I felt I could no longer afford to remain silent, for the sake of those who came after me.

Anita Hill suffered greatly but she gave a lot of women the courage and insight to speak out about what we all lived with in secret. And it is especially important that we speak out since men like Clarence Thomas have life long appointments to the Supremem Court and will influence the world the next several generations of girls in this country live in.

Louisa Chapman

Laura said...

Hi Gina,

I do remember those hearings very well. I ended up playing hooky from work--I started watching it on TV,was riveted and couldn't tear myself away. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. Ms. Hill was so believable and sincere, I couldn't wait to hear how Mr.Thomas would respond. He seemed so sure of himself as well. I didn't believe him, but he put on a good show, I guess.

But what really stays with me were some of the reactions I got from others. I remember a male coworker saying "the bitch is lying!". I'm glad to say that this person has had his comeuppance and is no longer employed at my company. Another friend told me that he thought Mr. Thomas probably didn't remember what he had done to Ms. Hill. To him, Thomas, it wasn't anything that important or significant, and he probably used that off-color humor all the time. I rather liked that explanation. I preferred that to thinking we have a perjurer on the Supreme Court.