Human Rights

Sex and the Single Nominee

Was it Harriet Miers' views on the Constitution or her lack of a male partner that made conservatives so squeamish?
Why did conservatives, including some on the religious right, successfully put the kibosh on President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers? According to HBO's Bill Maher, it had little to do with whether or not she was a master of constitutional law. And it wasn't about her being the President's best friend, either. It wasn't even related to whether she would overturn Roe v. Wade or set back civil rights for another generation.

Opposition to Miers' nomination may have had more to do with what the Right didn't know about her than what they did. And what they didn't know are details about her sexuality.

"It's not that Harriet Miers' views are a mystery," Maher quipped on Oct. 14, "It's that her genitalia are a mystery." The last time "genitalia" was mentioned in relation to a nominee for Associate Justice to the Supreme Court was during the Clarence Thomas hearing more than a decade ago.

In typical Maher hyperbole, he declared that "there are only three possibilities if you've never married or had kids by 60": Miers is either "an asexual figure ... [who] isn't using the equipment God gave her for making babies," a "practicing lesbian," or "a slut."

In a recent column, Dotty Lynch, senior political editor for CBS News, recently asked: "Why is it that battles for the Supreme Court have become more about sex than about the constitution?" She was referring to Miers' gender, but perhaps her sex life is more the issue.

In 1990, when the unmarried David Souter was nominated to the Supreme Court, there were repeated innuendos about homosexuality. Nevertheless, Souter survived, possibly due to the discovery of three former girlfriends around the time of his confirmation hearings. That discovery closed the door on an issue that shouldn't have been opened in the first place.

A year later, when President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court the hearings turned into a "he said, she said" battle over sexual harassment. Because it had all the dignity of an evening at a World Wrestling Entertainment event, the Thomas/Hill hearings -- as they came to be called -- drew large television audiences.

As Bill Press pointed out in a column marking the 10th anniversary of the hearings, the calm and confident Anita Hill "told Senators how her then-boss Thomas exploited and harassed female workers. He told dirty jokes. He graphically described pornographic videos he had rented, including the now-famous 'Long Dong Silver.' Perhaps inspired by 'Long Dong,' he bragged about the size of his own penis. He begged for dates. He even accused Hill of leaving pubic hairs on his can of Coca-Cola."

When it appeared that Hill's testimony might take him down, Thomas' supporters launched a masterful counter-offensive aimed at thoroughly discrediting Hill. Led by then right-wing activist David Brock (now the head of the liberal website, Media Matters), the campaign consisted of an avalanche of lies, disinformation and misinformation, all questioning Hill's character, judgment and capabilities. Hill was embarrassed and Thomas was confirmed. In a March 1992 article in American Spectator, Hill was still under attack; she was labeled a "lesbian acting out" and accused of suffering from "erotomania."

No one is intimating that Miers had Thomas-like sexual skeletons in her closet, but, as Maher correctly pointed out, "Undefined sexuality in women makes them [Republicans] nervous."

Something made those conservatives nervous. From all accounts, there were few reasons to be concerned about Miers fealty to the right's social agenda. She passed President Bush's religious test as an evangelical Christian from a conservative evangelical congregation that is "almost universally pro-life." During a conference call organized by the American Family's Association's Donald Wildmon, a gaggle of evangelical leaders heard assurances that she would dump Roe v. Wade if given the opportunity. Two of Miers' longtime friends, Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court and Ed Kinkeade, a Dallas-based federal district court judge, testified to her conservative bonafides.

She received the seal of approval from Focus on the Family's, Dr. James "I know more than you think you think I know" Dobson, as well as the Reverends of Righteousness, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Miers' "lifestyle" was the only elephant left in the room.

Justice Hecht and Miers dated a while back, but Hecht isn't talking about their hook up: "Dating to me sounds like what you did in high school," Hecht told Texas Lawyer reporters Miriam Rozen and John Council. "We saw one another and went to dinner. We were good, closely connected friends then, and we are now."

It is more than a decade since the Thomas/Hill hearings stirred the public's passions and focused the nation not only on sexual harassment in the workplace, but also on how women were severely under-represented in Congress. The Thomas/Hill hearings ushered in the "Year of the Woman" resulting in more women elected to Congress and state legislatures across the country.

Even though, under pressure, Meirs has withdrawn her nomination, she could still serve the public well. While there is no need for Clarence Thomas-like details, a public recounting of her life choices could inspire a real conversation about gender, sex, and the choices women make. Moreover, it might show that it is all right for women to remain single if they choose; that people who choose not to have children should not be stigmatized; and, in the final analysis, despite what the religious right would have the public believe, that a person's sexual choices has no bearing on their capability in the workplace. If that much is gleaned from Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers, all the caterwauling and speculation, ink and media-time might have been worth it.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.
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