WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In October 1991, the U.S. Senate was preparing to vote on the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation of conservative judge Clarence Thomas when news reports of lawyer Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations against Thomas broke.
From the outset, Thomas denied the accusations and never wavered in asserting that he did not harass Hill, sexually or otherwise. Thomas and many of his supporters claimed that Hill, who had worked for Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was politically motivated, but Hill vehemently denied this.
Because of Hill's claims, the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed the confirmation vote and questioned Hill, Thomas and several other supporting witnesses in nationally televised hearings.
A Gallup poll conducted during these hearings found 60% of Americans approved of the decision to delay the Senate vote to hold the hearings, while 32% disapproved. But a majority of Americans, 55%, said that the hearings should have taken place behind closed doors to protect the privacy of those involved.
The testimony in front of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee attracted a lot of the public's attention -- 86% of Americans said they watched at least some part of the televised hearings, and 77% said they were following news coverage of the hearings closely (including 30% who followed it "very closely").
She Said, He Said
Prior to Hill's testimony, nearly twice as many Americans said they found Thomas more credible than Hill (48% to 26%), but as the hearings progressed, public opinion fluctuated.
Hill's testimony graphically described alleged sexual overtures by Thomas as well as his habitual references to sexual matters and pornography. She explained that she did not come forward to complain about his behavior at the time because she thought it would adversely affect her career. After her testimony, public opinion had shifted, and nearly as many Americans said Hill was telling the truth (38%) as said so about Thomas (44%).
During his testimony, Thomas called the hearing a "travesty" that "should never occur in America." He also accused those who opposed his confirmation of racism, saying, "From my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."
He went on to refute all Hill's claims, and by the end of the hearings, the public was once again twice as likely to believe Thomas over Hill (55% to 27%). The day before the vote was to take place, 58% of Americans said they favored the Senate confirming Thomas, while 30% were opposed.
Verdict on the Hearings' Effect on the Country
On Oct. 15, 1991, the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Thomas by a narrow 52 to 48 votes. Six in 10 Americans said that in the end, the Hill-Thomas hearings were bad for the country, while 31% said they were good for the country.
After Thomas' confirmation, Gallup asked Americans how they thought Hill's charges of sexual harassment and the Senate hearings would affect women reporting cases of sexual harassment, and 60% thought women would be more likely to report such claims. Two in 10 each thought women would be less likely or that there wouldn't be much change.
In the same poll, voters were asked how their respective senator's vote for or against Thomas would affect their support for that person in the general election, and majorities said it would not affect their vote much.
However, the general election in 1992 was dubbed the "Year of the Woman" as 28 new women were elected to Congress, including four to the Senate. Some suggested that the optics of a male-dominated Senate during the Thomas-Hill hearings triggered this record shift in the gender balance of Congress.
Read more from the Gallup Vault.