BOSTON. — It was her word versus his. Just a he-said, she-said sort of thing, as Sen. John Danforth had put it, dismissing the ''October Surprise,'' the ''smear campaign,'' the ''eleventh-hour'' accusation of sexual harassment that had thrown Clarence Thomas' sure thing into full disarray.
Who was this ''she'' anyway? The senators who found her ''credible'' called her Professor Anita Hill. The others called her ''the woman,'' or ''this lady,'' or even, in the strange case of Sen. Alan Simpson, ''the lady who was lured.''
Before Anita Hill stepped into her televised Oklahoma classroom, measured and earnest, dignified and strained, the Senate's judiciary committee had simply dismissed her. Before Professor Hill said, ''It is an unpleasant issue. It is an ugly issue,'' they had decided to deal with her charges the old-fashioned way. Among themselves.
Anyway you cut it, some of these men had known since mid-September that the former head of the civil-rights enforcement agency was accused of violating a woman's civil rights.
Anyway you run the sequence of events, they had known before the committee vote that a Supreme Court nominee had been accused of sexual harassment as defined by that court.
But like businessmen running a private corporation, they handled this ''delicate matter'' discreetly, among their own kind. Why, Arlen Specter, the very model of judiciousness, had gone to Clarence Thomas in person, eyeball to eyeball, and gotten a forceful denial. Dennis DeConcini had ''made the judgment, right or wrong, that he was credible to me.''
It was her word versus his. They took his without hearing hers. They didn't tell the rest of us.
Would it have been better if Ms. Hill had gone public earlier? Sure, although anyone who wonders why she was reluctant can listen to the messages on her telephone tape. Did the senators have any legitimate reason for protecting Judge Thomas' privacy? Sure, FBI files are full of scurrilous attacks.
But anyone with half an investigative eye open could have discovered that Anita Hill was ''no kook,'' as Sen. Paul Simon put it. And anyone doing his job, should have understood that this is a subject that deserved as much attention as Douglas Ginsburg's tokes of marijuana.
This portrait of men in power is not very pretty. Capitol Hill is not just a place where you can bounce checks with impunity and discriminate without fear of the law. (Civil-rights laws don't apply there.) It's a place where men can listen to Clarence Thomas' straight-faced claim that he had no opinion on abortion, and then question Anita Hill's credibility.
If these men kept the lid on the charges of sexual harassment, however, it was not just to protect Clarence Thomas. To many, Anita Hill is their worst nightmare. The woman who could come riding out of the past waving a charge. False, of course, or maybe true.
Women have always lived with a sense of vulnerability. They have been vulnerable to rape, to harassment, to abuse; on the street, at work, even at home. Slowly, they have won some tools of self-defense. In the shouting match of his word against hers, it is not always or only his that is heard.
Date rape, battered women's defense, sexual assault. With each modest change in attitude and law, there has been a stunning overreaction on the part of many men. Where women feel vulnerable to male assault, men feel vulnerable to a woman's accusation.
Rape is still vastly underreported. Twice as many men kill their wives as wives kill husbands. Sexual harassment remains as widespread as it is hard to prove.
Yet when a Willie Smith is arrested, how many men think: Any woman could accuse me.
When a battered wife who killed her husband is granted clemency, how many think: It's open season on husbands.
And when Clarence Thomas is hit with a charge, how many think: You can't even ask a girl out anymore.
In real life, false accusations are few, maybe even fewer than false acquittals. But in fantasy life, they are the ''reverse discrimination'' storylines of the time, the female pit bull attack on the ankle of innocent man.
Her word is not always the right one. The chore of proving in public what happened in private remains as difficult as ever. There is no assurance that airing Anita Hill's charges and Clarence Thomas' countercharges would lead to a crisp clean-cut winner.
But it was not for the all-male Senate committee to silence ''her word'' before it was spoken in public. At the 11th hour and the 59th minute these senators finally heard, loud and clear, the voices of women. The women they represent.
His word, her word. This is our word to Congress: Listen up.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.