“You Have No Idea How Important This Is”: Anita Hill’s Testimony and the Arizona Attorneys Behind the Scenes

Anita HillWhen Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 1991, it didn’t bode well for women. Marshall, the first African American appointed to the court, was best known for his expertise and influence on civil rights law, but he had also been a defender of reproductive rights during his tenure in the nation’s highest court. He was among the court majority that legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, and he again stood up for abortion rights in two later cases, Harris v. McRae and Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.


The impact of Anita Hill’s testimony went beyond the question of Clarence Thomas’ appointment.


Marshall’s decision to leave the Supreme Court was announced during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, who had campaigned on an anti-abortion platform in his 1988 presidential bid. Predictably, Bush used the opportunity to replace Marshall with a more conservative judge. At a press conference on July 1, 1991, President Bush named Clarence Thomas, who was then one of the few African-American judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals, as his nominee.

Thomas had only served 19 months as a federal judge and, at 43, was relatively young for an appointee. Of the justices currently serving, he was the youngest at the time of appointment. Nonetheless, he had a record of statements and judgments that was enough to satisfy the Republican base. Though he had spent eight years as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he had been critical of affirmative action and school desegregation initiatives, and he questioned the very idea that the government should take action to address racial inequality. A product of a Catholic upbringing and Catholic schooling, Thomas had called the right of married couples to use contraceptives an “invention.” Groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) immediately spoke out against Thomas’ nomination, expressing concern that his presence on the court could put Roe v. Wade at risk. Continue reading

Book Club: Missoula – Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

MissoulaGuided by his own experience as a mountaineer, Jon Krakauer first made a name for himself with a handful of books about risk-taking athletes and adventurers: Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air. A blurb inside the last edition of Where Men Win Glory, his book about Arizona’s own Pat Tillman, aptly described him as “at home when it comes to writing about elusive alpha males.”

Krakauer’s latest book is a dramatic departure from that vein of writing, a study not of a lone wolf facing the elements but of a whole community facing its own controversies. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (Doubleday, 2015) is Krakauer’s investigation of a spate of rape allegations that shook the University of Montana and the town of Missoula from 2010 to 2012.


Missoula resulted from the author’s quest to become more informed about a crime that is both common and swept under the carpet.


Many of the assaults during that time involved members of UM’s Grizzly football team. As a consequence, the victims who came forward faced not only the normal challenges of pressing charges, such as revisiting their traumas in front of police and courts, but also the anger of local football fans who were convinced of their star players’ innocence. The fierce loyalty of the Grizzlies’ supporters, it seemed, fueled a greater sense of entitlement than accountability among team members.

As the story developed, Krakauer explains, Missoula entered the national spotlight in the pages of major newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but it was a viral article on the website Jezebel, “My Weekend in America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital,'” that captured the town’s newfound notoriety in an epithet that Missoula couldn’t shake. Continue reading

From Censorship to Insufficiency: Sex Education from the Dennett Trials to Today

In an article published the day after her trial, the New York Times described the defendant as a “gray-haired, kindly-looking matron.” When she took the stand in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the 53-year-old grandmother introduced herself as a maker of decorative wall hangings and an occasional writer for magazines.

Maybe it was a sign of the times that such an unusual defendant could be facing an obscenity charge that spring afternoon in 1929. The decade known as the Roaring Twenties shook established conventions as metropolitan centers like Chicago and New York became the birthplaces of modern cultural movements that pushed old boundaries. Showing disdain for the conservative dress and sexual ethos of the past, women in short hair and short skirts, dubbed flappers, were sensationalized for their cavalier attitudes toward sex. Pushing limits further, homosexuals and gender nonconformists earned nods of recognition in everything from stage productions (Mae West’s The Drag) to popular music (Edgar Leslie and James Monaco’s “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”), benefiting from a level of social acceptance that anticipated the 1960s. Meanwhile, the popularity of jazz challenged racial barriers as black and white musicians collaborated on stage and in studios, and as black and white socialites mixed in lively venues like Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.


Mary Ware Dennett was a pioneer for sex education — both through her writing and the legal battle she fought.


Amid those changes, some people still weren’t ready for the controversial publication Mary Ware Dennett was in court for distributing, even if that publication had been well received by the medical community and, furthermore, had been sent to such tame and respected clients as the Bronxville school system, state public health departments, and various religious and civic organizations like the Union Theological Seminary and the YWCA. The publication was one Dennett had written 11 years earlier for her two sons, then 11 and 14 years old. She wrote it after realizing that, without it, they wouldn’t receive the sex education they needed: “When my children reached the age when I wished to supplement what had been taught verbally, I sought something for them to read.” After searching “some sixty volumes,” Dennett decided to give up and write her own material. Continue reading

“I Didn’t Want to Believe It”: Lessons from Tuskegee 40 Years Later

Located among longleaf pine and hardwood trees, low ridges, and broad floodplains, Tuskegee, Alabama, is a small town that’s been a big part of American history. Despite a modest population of less than 10,000 people, Tuskegee has been able to boast many notable residents who have made names for themselves in everything from sports to the arts. Among them have been the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American Air Force unit, which served during World War II, and Rosa Parks, the icon of the civil rights movement, who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.


The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, conducted from 1932 to 1972, examined the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural black men — without their informed consent.


Tuskegee, though, is also remembered for one of the worst chapters in the history of medical research. Forty years ago, in 1972, newspapers revealed the story of a syphilis study that was callous in its deception of research participants, and damaging, even today, in the distrust it sowed among black Americans. The study had started another 40 years prior, in 1932, when the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) needed to rescue a financially troubled syphilis intervention in Macon County, Alabama. The intervention was first established in partnership with a Chicago-based philanthropic organization, but its future was uncertain when the organization’s funds dried up during the Great Depression.

Syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, was the subject of conflicting scientific hypotheses at the time, including the hypothesis that the disease behaved differently in blacks and whites. Interested in testing those hypotheses and faced with disappearing funds for treatment, the USPHS turned its project into a study of untreated syphilis. Also influencing the decision was the fact that the USPHS was discouraged by the low cure rate of the treatments at the time, mercury and bismuth. But by the mid-1940s, penicillin was in use as a proven treatment for syphilis. In spite of that medical advance, the USPHS withheld treatment from a total of 399 infected patients by the time the study ended in 1972. Continue reading