NEW YORK ― Anita Hill wasn’t at the Russian Tea Room in New York City where Joe Biden spoke Tuesday night, but her presence still loomed large.
During a speech at the Biden Courage Awards, put on by the Biden Foundation and It’s On Us to honor students who are working to stop sexual assault, the former vice president spoke at length about the “white man’s culture” that needs to change to combat sexual assault and harassment in the United States and around the world.
He also spoke directly to what some see as his greatest liability in a potential 2020 presidential run: the role he played in the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexually harassing Hill.
“A brave lawyer, a really notable woman, Anita Hill, a professor, showed the courage of a lifetime talking about her experience being harassed by Clarence Thomas,” Biden said to the crowd of elegantly dressed men and women who filled the room. “We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago. But she paid a terrible price, she was abused for the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something.”
Biden went on to express the “regret” he feels to this day that he “couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved” ― one in which “she was respected, where the tone of the questioning was not hostile and insulting, where the fact that she stepped forward was recognized as an act of courage in and of itself.” He stopped short of taking direct responsibility for the kind of hearing she did get or offering a direct apology to Hill, who is now a professor at Brandeis University.
In 1991, Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the ensuing years, he has been criticized for the failures that led to Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court, including not allowing testimony from other witnesses who could have bolstered the credibility of Hill’s account and blocking affidavits from experts.
“Nobody played advocate for [Hill],” Susan Deller Ross, a law professor and expert in workplace sex discrimination, who helped Hill in 1991, told The New York Times in 2008. “I don’t think [Biden] did well and he bears responsibility for Mr. Thomas being on the court.”
Former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who was among the congresswomen captured in an iconic October ’91 photograph charging up the stairs of the U.S. Senate to confront their male colleagues about Hill’s testimony, similarly remembers Biden prioritizing an expedited hearing over advocating for Hill.
“HE WAS THE CHAIR!!” she told HuffPost over email. “I remember him telling us he had promised Sen. [John] Danforth in the gym a quick hearing, and senators’ word was precious … Other women willing to collaborate were not allowed to testify at all, and they hurried to the final vote. It was close and if they held it one day later I think we would have won.”
I have not found his apologies to be sufficient. I have not heard him own up to what he actually did. What should he have done differently? I need to hear him say it. Explicitly. Precisely. Otherwise, I’m out.
Sarah Brown, 43, from Wisconsin
In the ensuing years, Biden has positioned himself as an advocate for women’s safety. He was the initial drafter of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, and in 2014, he and President Barack Obama launched the It’s On Us campaign with the explicit mission to end sexual assault on college campuses.
It remains to be seen how Biden’s perceived missteps with regard to Hill will color voters’ perceptions of him if he does run for president. But, at least anecdotally ― and especially for women who will be voting in the upcoming Democratic primaries ― it does seem to be an unresolved issue.
Some women expressed frustration that the former VP has not directly apologized to Hill and taken responsibility for the role he played in her story being dismissed. “I have not found his apologies to be sufficient. I have not heard him own up to what he actually did,” said Sarah Brown, a 43-year-old lawyer and teacher from Wisconsin. “What should he have done differently? I need to hear him say it. Explicitly. Precisely. Otherwise, I’m out.”
Terri, a 34-year-old from Kentucky who declined to share her last name, echoed Brown’s sentiments: “He wasn’t [some] bystander, a victim who couldn’t do anything,” she said. “He was an active participant in the shaming of Anita Hill, and now he’s trying to rewrite history.”
Most women HuffPost heard from said that they would be willing to vote for Biden in the general election, but felt that they probably would not support him during the primary ― especially in a race full of gender and racial diversity.
“All I think of when I see him taking up space that should be devoted to the many qualified women candidates is Anita Hill and it makes me loathe him,” said Wendy Brandes, who is on the executive committee of Indivisible Upper East Side.
Biden has positioned his history with Hill and Thomas as a learning experience that drove him to advocate for women. But Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder and executive director of women’s advocacy organization UltraViolet, did not mince words in her call for Biden to “do better”: “Do better for women. Do better for survivors of sexual assault. Do better to acknowledge the role you played in those hearings and the harm it caused not only to survivors, but all women.”
Hill, for her part, doesn’t seem to be holding her breath. In September, she told Elle Magazine that Biden’s inability to apologize had “become sort of a running joke when someone rings the doorbell and we’re not expecting company. ‘Oh,’ we say, ‘is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?’”
When asked if Biden had any plans to reach out to Hill directly in light of his most recent speech, a spokesperson for the former vice president responded within minutes: “I don’t have any comment on that.”