Confirmation: the Not-So Independent Women's Forum Was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right

By Lisa Graves and Calvin Sloan

HBO's new film on demand, "Confirmation," revisits the painful battle over the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in spite of the testimony of Anita Hill that he sexually harassed her.

The film features Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas, in addition to many stars in the supporting cast, and does not say which side it is on.

Some pundits have attempted to disparage the film, even though it has several scenes that portray Thomas and his wife Ginny as quiet, sympathetic figures and not as the outspoken right-wing political activists that they were and are.

One of the harshest critics of the film is a group that calls itself the "Independent Women's Forum" (IWF).

IWF is hardly independent though, despite its name.

It is deeply imbedded in the right-wing political infrastructure.

In fact, IWF began as part of the coordinated effort to get Thomas confirmed so he could advance the right-wing's legal agenda on the courts, in the face of deep fears by many that he would limit individual rights as a judge--fears later validated by his rulings and extreme dissents as a Justice.

As Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson wrote in their book Strange Justice: "the falsehoods and distortions involved in the selling of Clarence Thomas to the American people neither started nor ended with the treatment of Anita Hill's accusations. From the beginning, the placement of Thomas on the high court was seen as a political end justifying almost any means."

Central to the efforts to get Thomas confirmed were not only the attacks on Hill by GOP Senators but also press outreach used to discredit her that was orchestrated by a small group of powerful right-wing women.

That confirmation battle put one of the most reactionary judges in modern history on the Court, and it also led to the creation of IWF, an ultra reactionary women's group opposing women's rights in numerous ways.

IWF's creators defended Thomas, despite the detailed evidence against him, and the organization they founded has defended him and continued to attack Hill since 1991.

The Thomas hearings also led to a backlash from voters to a U.S. Senate that had 98 men and only two women as Senators.

In spite of a temporary majority supporting the confirmation of Thomas based on the incomplete information provided in the Senate hearings, American voters resoundingly rejected the idea of an all-white male Senate Judiciary Committee examining a woman's testimony about sexual harassment.

The 1992 election that followed swept out President George H.W. Bush and swept in four women as new Senators and more women in other offices, making that election "the Year of the Woman."

Today, 20 U.S. Senators are women; and IWF leaders and alums have regularly attacked the most powerful woman elected Senator since the Thomas hearings, Hillary Clinton.

IWF—which has had close ties to the billionaire Koch Brothers, before they were infamous, and to other rightwing donors—has used its well-funded platform to secure numerous press appearances without much scrutiny of its record and sometimes because of its reactionary positions.

That's in part because media outlets have defaulted to point-counterpoint "reporting" that gives equal weight both to facts IWF opposes and to outlier claims that are IWF's stock in trade.

Part of the playbook was set as IWF came into being, as its founders deployed women in the press to counter a fellow woman whose testimony threatened their political agenda and ally.

Much of that claim boiled down to denying her experience as inauthentic and deceitful because Thomas had not sexually harassed them. It was a brutally effective tactic.

This is the story of IWF's roots.

IWF: Born to Give a Woman's Voice to Defending Clarence Thomas

On June 28, 1991, the first black man to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall—an icon to the civil rights community—announced his retirement.

Ten days later, President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a 43-year old African American judge who had a controversial tenure as President Reagan's Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he challenged core ideas about equal economic opportunity for women, such as equal pay and comparable worth.

Although it was only 16 months before the next presidential election and even though the choice of a young right-winger like Thomas to fill the beloved Justice Marshall's seat was a lightning rod for controversy, the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled hearings on his nomination for September.

As the controversy over Thomas' nomination grew, a small group of right-wing women began meeting for lunch to discuss the nomination at the offices of Ted Olson in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

One of the women at those lunch meetings was Barbara Kay Bracher, a lawyer who married Olson in 1996.

Following the Thomas confirmation, she would go on to staff investigations of the Clinton Administration as a congressional aide and to write a diatribe called "Hell to Pay: the Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton," which was published by the right-wing bookseller Regnery shortly before Olson perished on a plane in the 9/11 attacks on her way to a taping for Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" TV show.

(Ted Olson became famous for taking the Bush v. Gore case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Clarence Thomas sided with him and four other GOP Justices in stopping the Florida recount in 2000, making Republican George W. Bush president despite Democrat Al Gore winning the popular vote. Bush then named Ted Olson Solicitor General of the United States.)

The driving force at those pro-Thomas strategy sessions in Olson's office back in 1991 was Rosalie "Ricky" Silberman, who had worked with Thomas as Vice-Chair of the EEOC and was one of his confidantes.

Before that, Silberman had worked as the press secretary for GOP Senator Bob Packwood, who later resigned in 1995 in the wake allegations that he harassed and assaulted numerous women he worked with.

(Ricky Silberman was also married to Thomas' mentor from Thomas' brief time as a judge on the D.C. Circuit: Judge Laurence Silberman, a very political judge who among other things later tried to clear George W. Bush of culpability for lying about Iraq's weapons and was later given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Bush.)

The third major figure in these lunches was Anita K. Blair, who was a lawyer who became General Counsel for IWF. President George W. Bush made her Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and in 2011 she was hired as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department on human resources in the Obama Administration.

In the later 1990s during the Republican effort to impeach Democratic President Bill Clinton, Blair claimed on behalf of IWF that:

"nothing ever did more to trivialize sexual harassment than the sorry spectacle surrounding Anita Hill ... Given prime-time exposure on national television Hill told a bizarre, uncorroborated story about Thomas, her boss at two federal agencies. Hearing her belated complaints about off-color jokes allegedly told about 10 years before, millions of Americans wondered, ‘What on earth does this have to do with sexual harassment?' Americans learned the answer from Hill and her supporters: ‘Sexual harassment isn't about sex, it's about power.' The Anita Hill spectacle wasn't about sexual harassment; it was about the exercise of pure partisan political power. The media circus surrounding Hill and Thomas was produced and directed by liberal operatives, including fifth-columnists like NPR's Nina Totenberg."

Those three right-wing politicos--Silberman, Olson, and Blair--formed an ad hoc committee called "Women for Judge Thomas," which ultimately became a non-profit group dubbed the "Independent Women's Forum."

The Clarence Thomas Nomination Begins and IWF's Founders Step Forward

But even before Anita Hill was in the picture--discovered by Senate Judiciary Committee staffers vetting the Bush nominee--allies of Thomas knew his controversial record as President Reagan's chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) could play poorly with many women and others concerned about equality.

The Women for Judge Thomas committee began holding press conferences the month President Bush announced Thomas' nomination to a lifetime position on the Court in July.

Thomas was in his early 40s and had never argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and he had only had 16 months of experience as a sitting judge on any court.

His selection was considered a tactical masterstroke by C. Boyden Gray, President Bush's White House Counsel, who had been criticized for letting the first vacancy in Bush's term go to New Hampshire Justice David Souter, who was considered by the far right to be not "conservative" or activist enough to deliver judicial votes to change the law in the ways they wanted.

By putting forward an African American with right-wing bona fides, at Gray's urging the Bush White House sought to mute Democratic objections for fear of offending a major constituency over fighting a nominee with a rags-to-riches life story.

(Gray is the grandson and also the nephew of three presidents of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. After President George H.W. Bush lost his bid for another term in the 1992 "Year of the Woman" election, Gray became chairman of David Koch's Citizens for a Sound Economy, which would later officially join forces with IWF.)

But Thomas' limited judicial experience and the hearings on his nomination deepened concerns of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As the New York Times reported: "'Judge Thomas lacks the experience and qualifications that a Supreme Court Justice ought to have,' said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. ‘He fled from his record and he refused to answer legitimate questions.'"

Leahy also noted: "‘Nothing in Judge Thomas's record or testimony suggests the level of professional distinction or constitutional grounding appropriate for a Supreme Court nominee. His legal and judicial experiences are limited. His speeches and writings have shown little in the way of analysis or scholarship.'"

So, when his nomination was considered, the Committee deadlocked 7-7 on his nomination but then voted to send the nomination to the full Senate for a vote without a recommendation for or against confirmation. Although the Democrats had a 57-43 majority, a number of Southern Democrats had already pledged to vote for Thomas to be confirmed.

Hill Comes Forward and IWF's Founders Step Up to Counter Her in the Press

Before the Senate vote could be held, however, National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg broke the story that the Senate investigation had uncovered allegations that Thomas had made unwanted advances toward some of his subordinates in his leadership positions in the Reagan Administration.

Totenberg received a tip that Professor Anita Hill, a conservative black law professor, had told the Senate that Thomas had made sexual comments to her when he was her supervisor when they both worked for the Reagan Administration.

This shocking development increased the volume of concern about confirming Thomas to a lifetime job on the highest court in the land, and the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled another round of hearings to examine the allegations.

Under the guidance of Ricky Silberman, the Women for Judge Thomas Committee identified women who worked with Thomas who said they had not been sexually harassed by him and that he had behaved professionally toward them.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee's investigators--including a Democrat named Ricki Seidman--identified another staffer who said she had been subject to sexual advances in the workplace by Thomas and also interviewed colleagues of Professor Hill, whom she confided in about the inappropriate things she said Thomas said.

As Steve Kornacki noted in Salon:

"Three Hill friends—Susan Hoerchner, Ellen Wells and John Carr—testified under oath that she had told them about Thomas' conduct as it happened between 1981 and 1983. ‘Anita said that Clarence Thomas had repeatedly asked her out … that he wouldn't seem to take ‘no' for an answer,' Hoerchner told senators. ‘The thing Anita told me that struck me particularly and that I remember almost verbatim was that Mr. Thomas had said to her, "You know, if you had witnesses, you'd have a perfect case against me."'"

On October 11, 1991, in nationally televised hearings, Hill testified in detail about things Thomas had said to her when she worked for him. While many observers were shocked by the graphic details, the Republicans on the Committee and other Thomas proxies strongly attacked Hill's character and her decision to continue working for Thomas rather than file a legal complaint, despite her concerns that doing so would destroy her career and her future.

Hill had explained on NPR that her decision to testify was a difficult one, and was made on moral grounds because Thomas, as Chair of the EEOC, the agency that enforces federal workplace discrimination laws, had been "in charge of protecting rights of women and other groups in the workplace" but instead was "using his position of power for personal gain."

Simply put, by sexually harassing her as she described, Thomas was alleged to be engaging in the kind of workplace discrimination that his agency was tasked with stopping.

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Many women believed that such behavior demonstrated that Thomas was unfit for a position of power and a lifetime position on the nation's highest court.

But the Senate's hearing about her allegations morphed into an inquisition of her, much like how criminal defense attorneys attempt to discredit rape victims in order to prevent the conviction of their clients.

What people saw on TV was an all-white Senate Judiciary Committee filled with several men who impugned Hill's character, doubted her intelligence, and attacked her motives—despite her conservative credentials--instead of treating her with respect and giving any credit to her eye-witness accounts of Thomas' behavior. The attack on Hill was led by Republican Senators Arlen Specter, Orrin Hatch, and Alan Simpson on the Committee, and by Missouri's John Danforth, Thomas' champion in the Senate.

More than 20 million American households tuned in to watch Hill testify at hearings chaired by then-Senator Joe Biden, who is now Vice President.

As Politico noted last fall when Vice President Biden was considering running for president: "Biden's done a lot over the past 24 years, including authoring the landmark Violence Against Women Act … But that hasn't erased the memories of how Biden presided over those hearings … blamed for doing little to stop the attacks on Hill."

He has also been criticized for opting not to call Angela Wright, an African American who worked in the press office at the EEOC, whose testimony would have echoed Hill's charges of sexual harassment.

Wright had "detailed a pattern of harassing behavior, including an instance in which Thomas asked her what her bra size was." Wright had also told her colleague, Rose Jourdain, at the time that Thomas made comments about "her figure, her body, her breasts, her legs, how she looked in certain suits and dresses."

Wright's statement was allowed to go into the official hearing record but she was not allowed to testify to help rebut Thomas' denial.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, another Thomas aide "Sukari Hardnett wrote that many black women at the agency felt they were ‘an object of special interest' to their boss. ‘If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive,' her letter read, ‘you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female,'" as noted by Kornacke.

But the Senate and the country did not get to hear from these women.

When Mayer and Abrahamson conducted a full investigation for their book, rather than the rushed examination that occurred in the Senate, they also discovered that classmates of Thomas reported:

"that he often recounted sexually explicit films in lurid detail. Kaye Savage, a former colleague, reports that the walls of his bachelor apartment were covered with Playboy nude centerfolds. The owner of a video store near the EEOC [called Graffiti] said Thomas was a regular customer for pornographic movies."

This evidence would have corroborated Hil''s testimony and refuted Thomas' denial, but none of this was part of the Senate's hearings.

Years later, another woman "Lillian McEwen, who had dated Thomas in the 1980s and who was promoted by Thomas backers as something of an alibi during his confirmation hearings, spoke publicly about her relationship with him for the first time [in 2010]. Now retired, McEwen said that ‘Hill's allegations that Thomas had pressed her for dates and made lurid sexual references rang familiar,' as the [Washington] Post put it--as detailed by Kornacke in Salon.

Kornacke added: "McEwen said that Thomas had been ‘obsessed with porn' and ‘would talk about what he had seen in magazines and films, if there was something worth noting.' She also said that Thomas would tell her about the women he worked with — even commenting to her about one's bra size. 'He was always actively watching the women he worked with to see if they could be potential partners,' McEwen told the Post. ‘It was a hobby of his.'"

That information was not known to the Senate at the time Clarence Thomas' nomination was being considered, but none of that has changed IWF's line of attack against Hill.

Thomas Fires Back

In response to Hill's testimony, Thomas attacked the Senate for what he flamboyantly described as a "high-tech lynching" of an "uppity" black man who dared to be conservative.

He used the televised broadcast of the hearings to portray the Senate's consideration of Hill's allegations against him as racist and as promoting racial stereotypes--even though his accuser was also a conservative African American.

GOP senators like Arlen Specter were given wide leeway to attack Hill with incredibly derogatory and personal claims such as suggesting she had "fantasies about sexual interest in her" and that she "was having a problem being rejected by men she was attracted to."

Hill took and passed a lie detector test, but Republican Senators smeared her further claiming she passed because she believed her "fantasies" about Thomas pursuing her.

Many women were disgusted by the way the Senate treated Hill and by the words and actions of Thomas, but not Silberman and her committee of Women for Judge Thomas, which held press conferences and other outreach buttressing the Republican attacks on Hill.

The IWF predecessor did so by pressing the claim that because he had not harassed the women they assembled he could not have harassed Hill and by arguing that she had "other" motives, which fueled the right-wing narrative that she had made up the allegations supposedly because she wanted to be with Thomas.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee hearings ended by effectively giving Clarence Thomas the last word, as Hill did not testify again to rebut Thomas' denial of her allegations.

Thomas Was Confirmed in One of the Closest Votes in History

Given how forcefully the GOP Senators sought to discredit Hill and the deployment of women in defense of Thomas, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the public remained divided over Thomas' confirmation. Several polls indicated that a majority favored his confirmation, while the remainder were split between opposing and being undecided.

In a contest of he-said-she-said, it appeared that a majority of those polled believed Thomas, who had so evocatively taken umbrage at the allegations against him. Having other women, like Ricky Silberman, defend him certainly helped his case.

And, at the same time, the public was denied the chance to hear from another woman willing to testify that she had also been sexually harassed by Thomas.

Also lost in the hot-button national conversation was the message that no one is entitled to a lifelong job on the U.S. Supreme Court.

So, on October 15, 1991, the Senate handed Thomas a lifetime job on the Court, with narrow 52-48 vote (with 11 Democrats joining 41 Republicans and 2 Republicans—Senator Jeffords (R-VT) and Senator Packwood (R-OR)—joining the Democrats).

Hill was home in Oklahoma, and Thomas, after he was confirmed for the lifetime post at the youthful age of 43, reportedly swore he would stay on the Court for 43 years to get his revenge on his enemies.

It was out of the ugliness of the Clarence Thomas nomination fight that the "Independent Women's Forum" was born.

IWF Continued to Fight Hill even after Thomas Was Confirmed

If the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee had sought to incapacitate Anita Hill with an array of punches at her reputation, Ricky Silberman seemed determined to throw the knockout blow.

A year to the day after her senate testimony, Hill returned to Washington D.C. to recount her experience. At a conference at Georgetown Law, she spoke in academic terms while analyzing the structures that had colluded against her, and received a standing ovation for her bravery.

Across the city on that same day, Ricky Silberman held a counter-conference at the Federalist Society.

Speaking to that audience, Silberman accused Hill of being a liar, labeled the assembled group of academics at Georgetown "the extreminists," and proclaimed that Hill's "unsubstantiated charge of sexual harassment launched the mother of all gender wars."

Later that year, in 1992, Silberman formally founded IWF with Barbara Bracher (Olson), Anita Blair and Lynn Cheney to fight that so-called "gender war."

However neither Silberman nor IWF would let the Anita Hill testimony rest.

In 1993, David Brock published the book "The Real Anita Hill," an alleged investigation into the "true motives" of Hill's testimony.

Silberman helped Brock edit, assemble, and advertise the book, which by all accounts was an orchestrated hit piece.

Brock, who had repeatedly referred to Hill in the media as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," would later apologize for his actions, and label himself as a "witting cog in the Republican sleaze machine." (Brock has disavowed his past as a political hit man for the right-wing and now leads groups challenging the right-wing and is also now aligned with Hillary Clinton.)

Silberman, who passed away in 2007, never apologized. The IWF tribute to her included a tribute from her memorial by Clarence Thomas.

Beyond Attacking Anita Hill, IWF Routinely Peddles Reactionary Claims

As documented by Barbara Spindel in Slate, five years after Hill's testimony, IWF ran a cover-story in its 1996 "Women's Quarterly" magazine where Elizabeth Larson, an IWF staffer, speculated that women were "spurred on by Anita Hill's example" and now found "it more profitable to litigate than to work."

In that article, Larson also suggested that women should simply "deal with" sexual harassment, a position the organization would advocate for in the 1990s time and again.

As detailed by researcher Lee Cokorinos in his book, "The Assault on Diversity: An Organized Challenge to Racial and Gender Justice," IWF received substantial financial underwriting by right-wing funders like the Scaife Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation to focus many of its efforts on Silberman's "gender war."

In the words of Anita Blair, who served as an IWF leader from 1992 until 2000, "it was in 1977 or 1978 that feminism should have declared victory and gone home… All that was needing to be done had been done."

In keeping with this fictitious worldview, IWF opposed a host of women equality initiatives throughout the 1990s using misleading data and taking some extreme positions:

• when lobbying against Senator Biden's "Violence Against Women Act," IWF claimed "wives instigate violence, including severe violence, against husbands more often than husbands do against wives."
• IWF argued that gender integration of the Virginia Military Institute would cripple national defense,
• IWF asserted that the problem of sexual assault on college campuses was overblown, since it is "inherently incredible" that female college students "are unable to report assaults to authorities,"
• and much more, including assailing key Title IX protections for female athletes.

Like every GOP-aligned group in the 1990s, IWF also supported efforts to impeach President Clinton, reaching out to Kenneth Starr for legal assistance as early as 1994. Barbara Olson and other IWF-ers helped carry the torch against Bill and Hillary Clinton.

IWF also provided Republicans in Congress with women's voices to testify against affirmative action, social safety net programs, and gun violence mitigation measures.

As a whole, IWF was focused on combatting a caricature of what it described as "radical feminism."

Over the past 25 years since the Clarence Thomas hearings, IWF has given a female face and voice to opposing almost every mainstream and common sense protection for equality that's been advanced—opposing equal pay, paid sick leave, increasing the minimum wage, and protecting women's reproductive privacy and freedom, and much more—many of which Thomas has also sought to weaken or strike down from the Supreme Court.

Over the years, IWF has not lost its interest in attacking Hill, even though its latest spin is about its supposedly "family-friendly" policies that put Wall Street in the driver's seat and would take away responsibilities from employers regarding maternity leave, despite overwhelming business support for expanding employer-paid maternity and family leave, as the Center for Media and Democracy recently documented in a story broken by Lydia DiPillis in the Washington Post. 

IWF's kind of outlier, free-market fundamentalist approach should come as no surprise since IWF and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity have been close partners--even sharing space and leadership for a number of years--and because the Koch network of billionaires uses an array of vehicles to push an anti-government, anti-science, anti-worker agenda.

But the claim that IWF is merely a "right-leaning think tank," given its legacy and extreme positions, ignores the history of a group that began with efforts to discredit Anita Hill and that continues to traffic in denial and disdain, despite the evidence that has mounted against so many of its claims.

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Lisa Graves is CMD's Executive Director, and she is the former Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for Senator Patrick Leahy. Calvin Sloan is a CMD researcher and multi-media specialist who previously worked for People for the American Way.

Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a national watchdog group. CMD's niche is investigating and exposing the undue influence of corporations on public policy. She previously served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice and in other posts.

Comments

Too bad you had to include a visual image of women apparently holding/smoking cigarettes that had nothing to do with the story. What message are you sending?

IWF has received funding from Philip Morris and has been allied with Big Tobacco, see e.g.: https://industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=qpgm0166 (and similar tracking) https://industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=hgdg0175 https://industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=tpyh0073 https://industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=pzyk0071 https://industrydocuments.library.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=gxfc0061