Rest in Peace, Arlen Specter: Speaking Ill of the Dead

Ed. note: This post is part of the second round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contributor contest (background here). Stay tuned all week as our six finalists take turns turns covering the blog and giving us a sense of their personal contributor style. The winner of the contest and newest member of the Feministing team will be announced next week!

As a Philly girl living in New York, I get most of my hometown news through the wonders of social media. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, I found out via jubilant Facebook status updates. My first inklings of the Penn State molestation scandal came courtesy of defiant tweets and comment wars. And so it should come as no surprise that the first place I heard of Arlen Specter’s death was on my newsfeed. Most of my friends lean to the left, and I expected to read lots of defiant statuses calling out Specter’s lackluster legacy, and an equal amount defending him on no other grounds than “don’t speak ill of the dead.” I prepared for the normal back-and-forth, and steeled myself for my inevitable feminist rage.

But there was nothing. Nothing except a steady stream of RIPs and anecdotes. I couldn’t believe it. Did no one know what Arlen Specter did? Who he was? Or had his gleeful attack of a brave woman been deemed insignificant in the reflection of a long career? I put on my research hat and started looking at obituaries. If the obituaries mentioned the Thomas hearings in any substance, Specter was described as “dogged” or “outspoken.” Some right wing sources complain that the Left still won’t let Specter live down his treatment of Anita Hill, but it seems even the most liberal of dailies, the New York Times, has brushed the hearings of 1991 aside. The Times’ obit slips their obligatory mention of Hill and Clarence Thomas into the eleventh paragraph.

But what did he do? Why do I have my hackles up over something that happened 20 years ago? Here’s a quick taste of how he treated Anita Hill (warning: this video is very frustrating and can be upsetting):

As a survivor of both sexual harassment and workplace sexual assault, I could not watch that short video through. It reminded me so violently of how my employers reacted to my reporting that I needed to take several puppy-video breaks. Here’s a good one:

Some might ask how I am able to reconcile my disgust with Specter with my infatuation with Joe Biden. For one, Biden never called Hill a liar, nor did he talk to her as if she were a child. Yes, he mismanaged the hell out of the hearings; yes, his feints towards impartiality as chairperson led, by not acting as opposition to the Republicans, to Thomas being confirmed; and yes, he gave Thomas the “benefit of the doubt.” But Biden has worked to redeem himself: voting against Thomas’s confirmation, authoring the Violence Against Women Act, supporting reproductive rights for all people, and making sexual assault on college campuses a major element of his vice-presidency, saying this at an event last year:

“Look, guys, no matter what a girl does, no matter how she’s dressed, no matter how much she’s had to drink, it’s never, never, never, never, never OK to touch her without her consent. This doesn’t make you a man. It makes you a coward.”

Since the hearings, Specter has refused to apologized, and even insinuated that Hill should thank him for helping her career. When Specter was voted out of office in 2010, he gave an interview to the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he joked that, essentially, feminists should be thanking him:

“Anita Hill has done more to advance women’s interests in our society and the world than almost anyone. I aided and abetted.”

To the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, he said:

“There was a profound effect on elevating women’s rights from that hearing.”

What a shining example of scrappy political underdogs.  What a beacon of moderatism. What a knight of bipartisan co-operation.  Rest in Peace.


Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation