ANITA HILL'S allegations against Clarence Thomas became a forum for conflicting emotions about men and women, about educational privilege, about racism -- all traditional themes of The American Drama.
"On the surface it had something to do with sexual harassment and with who's telling the truth, but the reason we were so mesmerized is that it really echoed very deep concerns about the clashes and contradictions created by gender, class and race," says Patricia Fernandez Kelly, a research scientist with the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies and a Hopkins sociology professor.
"This was a major cultural event which had a lot to do with exposing systems of thought and meaning in the United States."
A social anthropologist, Kelly reflects the sentiments of other local scholars in suggesting that widespread cultural perceptions, rather than factual evidence, caused the majority of Americans to believe Judge Thomas and ultimately led to his confirmation.
Scholars say the public did not see the story of Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill as a conflict between an alleged sexual harasser and his accuser.
Instead, they saw it as Self-Made Person vs. Special Interests.
Or Status Quo vs. Anti-Establishment.
Or the credibility of a man versus the credibility of a woman.
Twice as many American women believed Thomas as believed Hill, according to a New York Times/CBS poll. Kelly suspects many women turned against Hill because they perceived the law professor as a liberal feminist even though her politically conservative background suggested otherwise.
"Anita Hill was appropriated very, very rapidly by feminist groups and erected as a feminist symbol," she says.
A feminist herself, Kelly speculates that anger with feminism comes from the movement's tendency to emphasize issues of individual achievement, such as success in the workplace, and of personal autonomy, such as abortion, over the subjects of family, home and community.
She thinks that Hill, a single woman without children, struck many women as symbolic of highly polished careerism.
"She was not just Anita Hill, she was Professor Hill. That is not the kind of woman who is simpatico to a lot of women out there in the real world who have to struggle with downward mobility as a result of divorce and with the need -- underline need -- to work outside the home."
Kelly says the supporting testimony of colleagues and the favorable results of the polygraph test made Anita Hill's story credible, but she believes the public did not find her persuasive as a female victim.
"She was not the little farm girl somehow managing not to cry. She came across as professional, upwardly mobile, attractive, young, highly educated: The symbol of feminism in this country. Then the idea was 'Well, if she's so educated and so much into achievement, how come she didn't have the sense to talk about this 10 years ago?'
"As it turned out, her lack of credibility was dependent upon her individual achievement and her professional status."
Kelly believes this perception was underscored by the first four female witnesses for Thomas -- a group which most American women found more persuasive than Hill or her female supporters.
She suggests that what impressed one most about Thomas' female witnesses -- who were his subordinates -- was their loyalty.
What impressed one most about Hill's female witnesses -- who were her colleagues -- was their achievement.
"The majority of people could relate more to the subordinates because their own experiences are closer to those of the women who testified for Thomas. And these subordinates were pointing out that, in light of what Judge Thomas did for Anita Hill's career, she really didn't have anything to complain about."
Born and raised in Mexico City, the 40-year-old scholar calls herself a cultural outsider well equipped to examine what made the Thomas hearings "a uniquely American phenomenon."
She delivers her points briskly, as if she were standing at the blackboard:
"The hearings were structured in terms which were created and formed by lawyers.
"There was the notion of the public confessional: Anita Hill was led to believe that she had 'to tell the truth.'
"All of these contexts were compounded by American symbols of individualism. It was not a drama about community loyalties, or families, or groups. It was about one woman confronting one man about an issue embarrassing to women."
She says the hearings also illuminated the vein of Puritanism which runs through American society to the point that "any accusation involving sex in this country is absolutely lethal."
"People did not like to hear this young woman saying those graphic words and telling about all those lurid things. Clarence -- Thomas has not been hurt by that, Anita Hill was the only one hurt."
Kelly thinks the spectacle embodied the American presumption that litigation can resolve conflict -- as well as reveal the truth.
"The paradox is that truth has not emerged because it is not as simplistic as what we have been presented with," she says.
"The real issue was not who was telling the truth, but who was found more credible, or more worthy of benefit of the doubt.
"Ultimately the loyalty was for the individual who was perceived as the victim of special interest groups.
"And the special interest groups were perceived to be epitomized by an individual who felt she was merely doing the American thing of speaking the truth."