Next week a California woman may get a chance to do what Angela Wright-Shannon never could: testify before a U.S. Senate panel about the alleged sexual misconduct of a Supreme Court nominee.
That could be where the similarities end.
Wright-Shannon, of Charlotte, believes her case is very different from that of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party 36 years ago.
So different, she says, that Ford risks “diluting the critical voice that is the ‘Me-Too’ movement.”
Ford, a professor and research psychologist, was invited to testify Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But her lawyers have said she first wants an FBI investigation into the allegations. Kavanaugh, who has denied the accusations, is expected to testify about them Monday.
The situation has drawn comparisons to the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings. But Wright-Shannon said that’s premature.
“The allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas concerned his behavior as an adult male in a position of authority, who abused that authority by sexually harassing members of his staff,” Wright-Shannon said in an email, responding to the Observer’s request for comment.
“Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against nominee Brett Kavanaugh allege drunken teenage behavior that was quickly quashed. The actions of drunken teens at an unsupervised house party should be viewed through a vastly different lens than the actions of sober professionals in the workplace.”
Wright-Shannnon said her opinion doesn’t imply support for Kavanaugh, just respect for the movement that other women have started. She opposes the nomination, she said, for fear of what a Justice Kavanaugh would mean for issues such as abortion rights and health care.
The decades-old allegations against Kavanaugh have prompted questions about the limits of the #MeToo movement that started last year when accusations of sexual harassment and abuse brought down prominent men in Hollywood, politics and the media.
In 1991, Anita Hill testified that when she worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he often made inappropriate remarks, discussed scenes from porn films and talked about “his own sexual prowess.”
Thomas denied the accusations, which he called “preposterous.”
Wright-Shannon, then an assistant metro editor of The Charlotte Observer, was in Washington waiting to appear before the Senate panel. She’d worked for Thomas at the EEOC and had been subpoenaed to testify. She’d told Senate investigators that Thomas pressured her for dates, asked her breast size and showed up at her apartment uninvited.
Despite Hill’s testimony, the all-male Senate panel voted in favor of Thomas. No other witnesses were called. He went on to be confirmed and is currently the longest-service high court justice.
Writing Tuesday in The New York Times, Hill said that today “the public expects better from our government than we got in 1991.”
“That the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing suggests that the committee has learned little from the Thomas hearing, much less the more recent #MeToo movement,” wrote Hill, a Brandeis University professor.
It was in light of the #MeToo movement that Hill and Wright-Shannon resurfaced in the news earlier this year.
After dozens of prominent men had been brought down by allegations of sexual harassment, two articles resurrected the case against Thomas.
In February, a New York Magazine story by Jill Abramson, the former editor of The New York Times, laid out a case that Thomas lied during his confirmation hearing and asked whether it’s time “to talk seriously about impeachment.”
Writing in HuffPost, Wright-Shannon answered that question in a column headlined: “Clarence Thomas Sexually Harassed Me. Yes, He Should Be Impeached.”
“While it’s unlikely Thomas will be impeached,” she wrote, “the Me Too movement has underscored the depth and breadth of sexual harassment in our society.. . . Finally women are being heard and believed.”
In her email Wednesday, Wright-Shannon said, “We have no reason not to believe Professor Ford’s recollection of her encounter with Kavanaugh more than 30 years ago.
“And, if she wants to share her story with the Judiciary Committee before they vote on the nomination . . . she should be allowed to do so. But, assuming every word out of her mouth is true, I don’t believe the accusation warrants the cloak of “Me-Too” or a full FBI investigation.”
This week a Wall Street Journal editorial essentially agreed.
“It will tarnish the #MeToo cause with the smear of partisanship,” it said, “and it will unleash even greater polarizing furies.”
But Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College, said there shouldn’t be a statute of limitations on claims like Ford’s.
“The #MeToo movement is an outlet for some of the women who have been harassed however long ago,” she said. “Just saying it dilutes the movement . . . defines #MeToo a little more narrowly than I do.”