Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Brave New World

            The idea of a woman casting a ballot would have horrified Thomas Jefferson.  “Our ladies are too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics,” he told a surprisingly assertive Anne Willing Bingham, wishing that pretty lady would care more about her complexion and less about her rights.  Because of guys like him, it took women a century and a third to win the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. 

Woman suffrage was a hard-earned victory.  But it was no guarantee that women would be any wiser or better at voting than men.  Of course, I’m the kind of feminist who believes that women and men were created equally capable of behaving like idiots. 

            I’m also the kind of historian who believes that history matters.  I don’t like it when people engage in the Big Lie, when they throw the past down the memory hole.  Thus this morning’s post, apropos of Virginia Thomas’s recent email to Anita Hill.

            For those who don’t know, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas is the wife of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court.  While Justice Thomas assents in decisions like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, unleashing a flood of anonymous corporate money on the election process, his wife heads up a political action group, Liberty Central, which uses a giant pile of that mystery money to target some candidates for defeat, and to promote others more friendly to their lobbying agenda. My own excellent Congressman, Martin Heinrich, is a thoughtful and hardworking person who makes me believe politics isn’t just for knaves and thieves.  Liberty Central wants him gone.

            If you think it’s a touch unseemly for Ms. Thomas to engage in big money political manipulation while married to one of the Nine, it gets worse.  According to this morning’s newspapers, Virginia Thomas recently left a voicemail message for one Anita Hill, professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, suggesting that Professor Hill apologize for testifying against Mr. Thomas at his confirmation hearings, twenty years ago.  Say what????

            Twenty years ago, Anita Hill defined “speaking truth to power” by braving an onslaught of hostile questions from “moderate” Republican Senators including John Danforth of Missouri and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.  Hill dared to testify that during her tenure as a staff member at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, her boss, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her.  In those days, harassment was ubiquitous, and taken for granted.  Women who complained could expect to lose their jobs and have their reputations destroyed.  Anita Hill had nothing to gain from testifying, everything to lose.

            The Senate confirmation committee gave Hill what harassed women could expect—more ugliness, more grief.  Thomas was confirmed, but many, many women were inspired by Anita Hill’s bravery, swearing that they would not put up with this crap any more.

            And now Ginni Thomas has decided she’s raised enough from corporate sources to put their money where her mouth is, and ask Anita Hill to apologize.  Apologize?  For speaking out against sexual harassment?  Ms. Thomas insists that she’s offering Hill “an olive branch.”  Hill rightly says she’s insulted by the renewed attack on her credibility.  If that’s an olive branch, I’m Clarence Thomas.

            You can’t change history, Ms. Thomas.  Neither can your husband, powerful as he is.  We can’t recall Clarence Thomas from a life term on the Supreme Court, and we can’t stop Ginni Thomas from flinging around dirty money and spewing oleaginous lies.  But we can take a look at Liberty Central’s list of “targets” like Martin Heinrich.  And then we can go write a check, hit the phones and knock on doors, using the power of the ballot box in the name of knowing and learning from history.

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