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They still don't get it, 30 years on

In 1991, Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma

In 1991, Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor, accused Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee, of sexual harassment in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images and Mandel Ngan AFP via Getty Images

My parents rarely had serious political arguments, until the Clarence Thomas hearings and the testimony of Anita Hill.

Sure, they’d make fun of each others’ politics. My mom’s, "Why can’t everyone just be nice?" liberalism was the perfect foil for my dad’s, "Why can’t everyone just leave me alone to watch baseball, read subversive books, drink vodka and pay low taxes" libertarianism.

And any such clashes that did come up were quick and lopsided: My dad was a talented debater, speaking with such off-the-cuff confidence that you could never tell whether he was quoting Thomas Jefferson or ad-libbing.

But in 1991 my mom found an argument she was unwilling to concede, where her personal experience trumped his rhetorical talents.

That was the year Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court was nearly scuttled by the accusations of his former employee, Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas at the federal Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, but was herself ambivalent about whether what she said he did rose to the level of illegality. Hill said she testified because his behavior reflected on his character and fitness to serve, and because answers she had given the FBI about Thomas were leaked.

In televised hearings, Hill claimed Thomas recounted pornographic movies that included group sex, rape and bestiality, bragged of his sexual prowess and once asked her, "Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?"

To my father, the testimony was at first a joke. He quickly adopted, "They just don’t get it," the common refrain among liberal women about men in general and the 14 white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee in particular, repeating it with comic balefulness.

But my mother responded with a rare fury, saying, "No, you DON’T get it, and you won’t listen. I’ve been working in offices for 30 years and this is how men treat women, including your wife, and it’s bull@#$%! It’s demeaning and it matters and it is like having a second job to put up with it at work day after day."

She was right, and he came to see that. It’s unfortunate that he had to know his wife was being abused to care that anyone was, and that I, at 20, needed to be angry for my mother to be angry at the prevailing reality.

Thirty years later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stands accused of behavior mirroring what Hill accused Thomas of, and he has conceded he has spoken to female employees in ways that could have "been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation," and apologized.

It is extraordinary that three decades after the Thomas hearings, Cuomo felt comfortable behaving this way. It is monstrous that people are still comfortable assailing Cuomo’s accusers for "waiting until now to say something."

Cuomo’s first accuser, former state employee Lindsey Boylan, had the right to speak up whenever she chose, or never. Being harassed does not obligate a person to act as we wish, on our timeline. And the second and third accuser stepping up should be honored for not leaving Boylan hanging.

"They just don’t get it," we were told, and it was true, and too often it is still true.

But 30 years after Hill confronted Thomas, and Thomas ascended to the Supreme Court anyway, we can no longer claim, as my thoroughly cowed father once did, that it hasn’t been explained to us properly.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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