In the summer of 1991, Thurgood Marshall resigned from the Supreme Court, and the administration of George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a federal appeals court judge and Reagan administration functionary, to replace him. Clarence Thomas was confirmed, and serves on the Supreme Court today, and is one of the two most conservative justices on the court.
The basic facts about Clarence Thomas' career, race, political views and character will always be secondary, in my mind, to the furor and controversy surrounding his confirmation hearings. During his confirmation hearings, Anita Hill, previously one of his staff members in the Reagan Administration, testified that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her while they worked together. At the time, the allegations were widely debated, and to this day, they stand as "he said she said". But the truth of what happened is secondary to how the hearings transformed social consciousness.
Those much older than me might look at the hearings as just a blip in the development of gender issues, and those younger than me might not believe me about this, but before the Clarence Thomas hearings, "sexual harassment" was not a widely used concept. I am sure that it existed and was used as a legal concept, but it wasn't part of popular consciousness, as far as I can remember. (Of course, I was twelve years old while this was going on, so perhaps I was not the best one to ask about sexual politics). Almost overnight, Anita Hill's testimony, some of it involving quite explicit topics, was being debated both in the serious newsmedia and (inescapably) in talk show monologues. The entire issue of sexual harassment, in the forms of jokes, discussion, and indignant speeches, soon eclipsed the issue of whether a single Supreme Court judge would be seated. Although I can't remember exactly, this did seem like a new and dangerous thing to me.
(As a side note, it was that fall when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV: younger people might also not believe me that before this happened, even people who were scientifically aware of what HIV was still thought of it as a "gay disease". It was also after Magic Johnson announced he had HIV that it became acceptable to advertise condoms in magazines.)
For me personally, the Clarence Thomas hearings were one of the first news events that I remember really affecting me. I had always had crushes, but this was at the age where male-female interactions were first becoming an important part of the social life of those around me. And right at the beginning of this, I face a situation where a man is castigated and humiliated because of the things he said to a woman. It made me very confused about what was acceptable to say, and when. At the same time that this was happening, I would also read in my sister's copies of YM or Seventeen stories of girls who seemed to be desperate for male attention, and who were meek and accepting of what men did. These two variations of how women related to male attention (which were, of course, both exaggerations), would be a confusing thing for me to figure out over my teenage years.
While the process of replacing a Supreme Court justice tying into my personal development as an adolescence might seem to be a narrow thread, it is true that the hearings did ignite a new debate, and interest over, what gender roles meant in the workplace. Many people who are too young to remember the hearings might doubt it, but Clarence Thomas' confirmation was the starting point of a debate that has been going on since.