As a so-called "two-fer" -- black and female, a minority twice over in the professional workplace -- Professor Anita F. Hill came into yesterday's hearing bearing a double burden.
"Oh well, it's only a black woman," is how Dorothy Height, longtime civil rights leader and president of the National Council of Negro Women, characterizes some underlying attitudes.
"Women are valued less than men in this society, and black women are valued even less than white women," said Cecelia Carroll, director of the Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Baltimore. "Some people may attach less importance to what we say because as a group, we are valued less."
The unfolding drama surrounding the sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas has riveted much of the country during the past week with its potent mix of sexual and racial overtones. And many black women in particular have kept close watch on the actions of the overwhelmingly white and male Senate.
"It's difficult for many of these senators to understand the nature of sexual harassment as it pertains to women," Jo M. Glasco, a Columbia attorney, said during a telephone interview yesterday.
"This situation might bring in other pre-conceived biases as well, to the extent that these are black women and black women at the low end of the totem pole as far as job opportunities . . . and the perception of their moral character in many white men's minds."
Saying she was "glued to the telly," Baltimore lawyer Georgia Goslee said she believes that sexism more so than racism is at play here, though the latter cannot be dismissed.
"Anita Hill has been treated like I believe most women are treated -- it seems as though [the senators] want to beat up on her," said Ms. Goslee.
But, Ms. Goslee said, if Ms. Hill were white, reaction to her charges would have been quite different: "By now, he would have been lynched."
Ms. Height said she believes that black women feel more rage over the issue of sexual harassment because their word is so often "discounted" when they level such a charge. Additionally, she said, they don't "feel secure enough to come forward."
Carole Lyles, director of the Johns Hopkins University Leadership Development Program, said it must have been particularly hard for Anita Hill to come forward because she can be viewed as a traitor to blacks' chances of seating one of their own on the Supreme Court.
"For women to speak up about sexual harassment is hard enough; it is particularly hard for people in the black community because some people will still say, 'But he is black; maybe we shouldn't have broken ranks,' " Ms. Lyles said. "So it's unfortunate in many ways because the Clarence Thomas nomination had already split the black community."
"As black people, we're criticized for scrutinizing 'the brother,' " said Ms. Carroll of the Sexual Assault Recovery Center. "But there can be more than one black candidate. When [Judge Robert H.] Bork was voted down, they got another white man. If [Judge] Thomas is not confirmed, I know there are other black candidates out there."
Having Ms. Hill in the spotlight has revealed something about how society views black women as a group, some women said. That many have noted how professional and articulate Ms. Hill seems perhaps indicates that this is considered unusual for black women, they said.
"What disturbs me is people are saying, 'Well, she's far too intelligent and normal to have made this up,' " said Ms. Lyles. "That's classist. If she was one of the janitorial crew, would we have believed her less? If I were a poor, uneducated woman, would no one believe me?"
To some, Judge Thomas' alleged improprieties perhaps reflect what they see as generalized sexism within the black community.
Harassment by black men is "part of the common treatment our women get," said Ms. Height, whose place in the civil rights establishment dates back to her mentor, Mary MacLeod Bethune, and their supporter, Eleanor Roosevelt. "Black women are debased so much, so taken for granted."
Regardless of the outcome of the hearings, several women said, it is heartening that the Senate at least agreed to hold them.
"I was afraid the issue had been soft-pedaled," said Baltimore attorney Donna Jacobs. "Why were [Ms. Hill's claims] pushed aside so easily at first? Was it race or sex? I'm not sure I've decided.
Ms. Height said she recalled Mrs. Roosevelt telling her that when she tried in 1960 to talk about sexual harassment faced by women in the workplace, her audiences would laugh.
No one, she said, is laughing any more.