In the fall of 1991, shortly after I testified at the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, letters began arriving in my mailbox at the University of Oklahoma, where I was a tenured professor at the law school. At first they trickled in, but soon the mailman was delivering my mail in trays, as many as four a day, each with hundreds of letters. Eventually, the deluge overflowed my office and filled a storage closet. In January of 1992, with guidance from Ruth Whitney, then editor of Glamour, three women, two of whom were retired librarians, began the monumental task of opening and sorting it. People sent me Hallmark cards, handwritten notes on lined paper, typed letters on formal stationary, even telegrams. Some of it was critical, even threatening. But the vast majority was supportive, as they shared their own stories, not just about sexual harassment but their personal experiences of gender, racial, class and ethnic inequity. At first, even though many of the letters were comforting, I found them hard to read, but eventually I decided that I would read them anyway, and they wound up impacting my life in a way I could never have foreseen.
Though the accounts I received were as varied as the people who wrote them, some themes emerged. Women and men wrote about feeling isolated in their workplaces and alienated from or unaware of the laws that might help fight discrimination. One individual, a veteran civil rights advocate, had not, until the hearing, talked with his mother, wife or sisters about the sexual harassment they had endured. Countless writers told me of how, rather than pursue their legal rights, they had left jobs and schools that they treasured. Those who did complain often told two, seemingly inconsistent, tales; one of the satisfaction they felt doing so, the other of the toll that the process took on them and their families.
It was the disconnect between the laws on the books and the experiences that I was hearing that persuaded me that laws alone weren’t enough. Looking through the eyes of individuals who saw legal protections as inaccessible or having too many negative consequences, I saw their limits. The gulf between the rights which I believed in so passionately and had invested my life’s work in at the EEOC, and the realities of the people they had intended to protect seemed enormous. Americans, myself included, had been miseducated about rights and their relationship to equality. Only an understanding of history, culture, and the human experience could bridge that gap. After all, the laws themselves had not changed Supreme Court nominee Thomas’s egregious conduct towards me, but the public discourse that followed changed our collective understanding of the nature of a behavior that had been the bane of women’s and girl’s experience for centuries, notwithstanding laws that prohibited it.
And so, in 1998, I decided to leave my law school teaching position, albeit reluctantly. Following my public pillorying by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, certain officials at the University of Oklahoma had attempted to revoke my tenure. I had fought hard for my right to remain on the faculty, and did not want to appear to cave to the desires of my detractors. But I knew that I needed a new intellectual home in order to be able to address the challenges that my constantly growing collection of letters raised. It is ironic, but no accident, that I found that new home at Brandeis University, an institution named after Justice Louis Brandeis that nonetheless does not have a law school. As an attorney, Brandeis was called the “people’s lawyer” and is credited with introducing the Supreme Court to social science findings in a landmark case involving the rights of women workers, thereby infusing an understanding of how people actually live into legal reasoning.
When I moved, I brought six file cabinets of letters with me to Massachusetts, where I continued to get more. I now have more than 25,000 of them spanning two decades. These days, they’re just as likely to relate stories about the recession and foreclosures as sexual harassment. They have helped me to see that the housing crisis is not simply a market crisis, it’s our failure to connect the laws that were supposed to protect the rights of thousands of homeowners, particularly women and people of color who were targeted by predatory lenders, with their reality. I read at least one of them every day as a reminder of the individual lives at stake in the search for equality.