icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

What If Anita Hill Had Been White?

Everywhere I’ve gone recently, everyone wants to talk about Brett Kavanaugh. My timetable was a little hasty when I predicted in my last column that he would be toast by the weekend, but I’m sticking with the general point. The potential loss to Republicans if their women desert the party over this issue is not worth it to them. Because there is no principle at stake other than a victory for Trump, party leaders should force Kavanaugh to withdraw. They did that in the 1974 midterms, when they forced Richard Nixon to walk away. Both men were endowed with lifelong arrogance that made them assume they were axiomatically entitled to do what they wanted to do, but with Kavanaugh it is simpler and can be expressed in just two words: judicial temperament. He displayed temper instead, and his smart-mouth treatment of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobucher alone should disqualify him.

But I want to ponder a different point. A number of pundits have made the analogy to 1991, when the first President Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall as the only African American on the Supreme Court. The court had one woman then, Sandra Day O’Conner, who had joined the court just a decade earlier. Many women thought that instead of a second African-American man, Marshall’s successor should be a second woman, preferably black -- and specifically Constance Baker Motley, who had demonstrated her intellectual brilliance as chief judge of the tough US district court in Manhattan. Instead, Bush choose Thomas, an intellectual midget whose longest employment was with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

It was a slap in the face to anyone who cared about credentials, effectively saying that there were no better-qualified African Americans in the judiciary. It became even more of an insult to women when Anita Hill, an attorney who worked with Thomas at the EEOC, came forward and testified in very credible terms about how Thomas repeatedly had sexually harassed her. Just as now, she was the only witness at the Senate hearing, although other women also spoke of inappropriate behavior. Thomas, like Kavanaugh, was the product of a gender-segregated Catholic education. The younger man was just beginning to practice law and doubtless watched those hearings. When the Republican Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Thomas, Kavanaugh may have been reinforced in his inherent belief that it was acceptable to treat women as less than equal.

Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman, frequently said that sexism is a far more difficult problem than racism – but people weren’t yet hearing this complex message. Clarence Thomas effectively played the race card, calling his confirmation difficulties “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Lots of people, especially men, bought that argument -- completely ignoring the fact that Anita Hill also was black. If he was being lynched, she was being both raped and lynched.

So I’ve been wondering what might have happened had the complainer against Thomas been white. That was 27 years ago, and there may have been enough residual racism, especially with Southern senators, that they would have accepted the testimony of a white woman as truthful. Or maybe not, as it was and remains clear that the chief order of Republican leaders in both 1911 and 2018 is to choose a man whose highest qualification is partisanship.

Another October Flashback

While researching Kavanaugh, I realized that the predecessor in his White House job was Harriet Miers. Remember her? Again it was October (although not an election year) when the second president Bush nominated her in 2005 to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. Because we had Bill Clinton between the two Bushes, there was a second woman, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, on the court – but even more than the second black man, Harriet Miers was profoundly unqualified.

Clarence Thomas at least had been a judge for two years, but Miers never served as anything other than an attorney for the Bushes. After an embarrassing appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when she was unable to express basic principles of constitutional law, senators convinced the Republican White House to withdraw her name. She quickly faded from national memory, but what an insult that nomination was to female attorneys! And what a hoary mindset is revealed when such white men put forth such poor examples of minority achievement as the best available options.

But even the White House powers eventually realized that Harriet Miers was a liability, and she was forced out of her job in 2007. She rejoined her private corporate law firm in Texas – but both the House and the Senate Judiciary Committees later subpoenaed her to testify about the firings of several US attorneys during her time in the Bush administration. She refused, and on Valentine’s Day of 2008, the House cited her for contempt, voting 223-32. Presumably she’s still in Texas, but an internet list of her achievements ends with 2005.

Dr. Anita Hill continues to be honored, including as the subject of a 2016 HBO film, Confirmation. When she testified against Clarence Thomas in 1991, she was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. She moved on to prestigious positions with the University of California and with Massachusetts’ Brandeis University. She has written several books and continues to practice civil rights law. It is important to know that her great-grandparents were slaves in Arkansas.

Unpaid Advertisement for TCM:
God’s Little Acre

I’ve not seen Confirmation, mentioned above, because we don’t subscribe to HBO. Instead, most of the cocktail-hour movies that Hubby and I regularly enjoy come to us free from Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Hubby saw lots of movies when he was young because he worked at a theater, and I watched more than most girls of my age and class because of a friendship with a fanatic fan who paid for the tickets. Yet I was an adult and teaching social studies before I ever heard of film as an art and a valid part of our national culture. Over the years, I’ve come to think of movies as the very best way to understand other points of view, both at home and far away from home.

Let’s start with God’s Little Acre. My mother forbade me to read the book, which was published in 1933 by Erskine Caldwell. He was born in little Moreland, Georgia, and knew whereof he wrote in his Southern novels. My Minnesota mother didn’t really know anything about that back then, so it is ironic that she died near Moreland, after becoming somewhat more knowledgeable about the South. The characters in God’s Little Acre are poor whites during the Great Depression, and the protagonist spends most of his time digging holes in his yard seeking his grandfather’s alleged buried gold.

I suppose I was forbidden to read it because there’s a subtle hint of perhaps, maybe, implied incest that never goes anywhere -- but now I suspect that the reason it was viewed as scandalous back in the 1930s was economic, not social. The cotton mill that supports the town’s workers has been closed by its northern owners, and the implications of unions and perhaps socialism probably were more offensive than the allusions to sex. It’s also important to know that this movie, with just one serious kiss and no nudity, was made in 1958, twenty-five years after the supposedly scandalous novel. Erskine Caldwell still was alive, but I guess no one invited him to view the final film. Surely he would have noticed the modern cars that appear late in the story, sleek two-tone cars with fins that did not exist in the era portrayed. Thumbs down on production teams that so often clumsily and unthoughtfully undo authors’ work.

Caldwell was married to photographer Margaret Bourke-White, and they jointly published Have You Seen Their Faces? about Depression poverty. They traveled and wrote widely and were the only American reporters in Moscow when Germany attacked there in 1941. They divorced the next year, as she began to be more famous than he. Although she is remembered for her photography, Bourke-White also was a compelling wordsmith. I’ve published two books on women during World War II, and in doing the reading for that, I think the strongest bit of writing I know might be about her dogged pursuit of Nazi death camps in the days just after the war ended. She found one obscure site by tracing “a peculiar odor.”

Unpaid Advertisement for TCM:
Other Classic Couples

Hubby and I also recently watched two other classic movies in danger of being forgotten, The Little Foxes (1941) and Cass Timberlane (1947). Foxes is by Lillian Hellman, who always was more accomplished than her longtime partner, Dashiell Hammet, a pioneer of the tough-guy detective genre. Like Bourke-White, Hellman spent time in Europe and predicted the rise of Hitler by writing Watch on The Rhine in 1940. Like God’s Little Acre, however, Little Foxes is set in the Deep South in 1900. That was when northern textile mills were moving south for cheaper labor, and an ambitious Bette Davis wants to invest in a mill with her brothers and a Chicago man. Her husband disagrees, and she deprives him of his heart medicine so that he will die. No one mentions that if Alabama law had allowed a woman to retain her inheritance at marriage, this tragedy could have been avoided. I don’t think that even Lillian Hellman thought of the difference that state laws can make in women’s lives.

We watched Cass Timberlane primarily because it stars Spencer Tracy, but also because the author was Sinclair Lewis. You know him as the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930 and soon after the publication of his giant works, Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922). But he seemed capable of just one theme – hypocrisy and materialism, especially in small-town America -- and had lost favor with both critics and the public by the time he wrote Cass Timberlane in 1945. Lewis was on a downward sprawl with alcoholism, and the story first was serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine. It turned out to be a rerun of his theme of greed and virtue, with women usually cast as the greedy one. It may have been the most confused and disappointing role that Spencer Tracy ever played.

Like most of his early novels, this was set in Sinclair Lewis’ home state of Minnesota, and that provided another reason for this Minnesota native to watch. An additional motive was that, between 1928 and 1942, Sinclair Lewis was married to Dorothy Thompson. Yes, I know you don’t know Dorothy Thompson, but you should. An international journalist who did not give up her career at marriage, she interviewed Hitler in 1931 and began issuing immediate warnings – so much so that Germany expelled her in 1934. A thoughtful State Department would have put her to work, but that was an era when even expert women could not expect such appointments. Instead, she lectured widely and within a few years, her columns were syndicated in more than 170 newspapers.

Although her work was centered in New York, she gave that up to buy a home in rural Vermont, where she hoped to keep her husband away from temptation. He had made money with his early books, but lost that fortune and depended on her for support after their 1928 marriage. Already by 1932, literary critic H.L. Mencken – never a fan of women – wrote that “Mrs. Lewis” had given her husband “ten thousand dollars out of her own savings.” She waited another decade before filing for divorce, and yet Lewis had the temerity to make the wrongness of divorce the opening scene of his Cass Timberlane. It’s no wonder that Dorothy Thompson titled her last book, published in 1958, The Courage to be Happy.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author