Traitors have always been despised far more thoroughly than mere enemies. So perhaps it is unsurprising that after the Senate voted narrowly to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) became the focus of the opposition’s ire.
“She is a disgrace [and] her legacy will be that she was a traitor to women and marginalized communities” tweeted Linda Sarsour, a board member of the Women’s March organization, as Collins explained on Friday why she was supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination, despite allegations by Christine Blasey Ford that he had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Barely an hour later, Women’s March tweeted an image branding Collins a “rape apologist.”
“Gender traitors,” said Alexis Grenell on the opinion pages of the New York Times, deriding the five female senators who had supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation as part of the 53 percent of white women who “put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status in 2016 by voting to uphold a system that values only their whiteness, just as they have for decades.”
Within a day, activists had crowdfunded millions of dollars to defeat Collins in 2020.
It’s not unreasonable, of course, to think that womanhood gives one a different perspective from men. That perspective must necessarily influence one’s beliefs about policy, and particularly about policies that affect women. In what became known as Miles’ Law, Rufus E. Miles Jr., an official in the Bureau of the Budget, noted in 1948 that, in politics, “where you stand depends on where you sit.”
Women know, in a visceral way that men never can, what it is like to live your life in consciousness of a single, inescapable fact: that virtually every man you meet is capable of physically overpowering you and taking what you won’t give them freely. We also know that if some man attacks us, it is likely to be in a private place, with no witnesses, and that the physical evidence will often be little different from the aftermath of consensual sex.
And so we know that our safety inescapably rests on two fragile foundations: the goodwill of those men who refrain from doing what they could; and if they don’t refrain, our ability to persuade strangers to believe us rather than our attackers. I certainly hope Collins’s decision was informed by her knowledge of what it is to be afraid; if it wasn’t, she was not giving the people of Maine, or the people of the United States, the benefit of her fully informed judgment.
But, of course, as women, we know something else, too: that we are not the plaster saints the Victorians tried to make of us. To be a woman is to know, from the inside and all too well, that women are fallible.
We know, alas, that we sometimes give in to the human temptation to lie, and that we have only a normal human conscience, not some sort of magical feminine guardrails that keep us from lying about serious things such as rape. We’re all too aware that we make mistakes, as humans do, and that sometimes those mistakes are grave – including, yes, the possibility of being mistaken decades later about an attacker’s identity.
That intimate insider knowledge about her sex should also have been taken into account when Collins made her decision. As should a number of other things that have nothing to do with her biological sex.
In addition to being a woman, Collins is a human being who has spent 65 years on this earth, forming her own unique set of beliefs and values. As a Republican, she naturally favors Republican ideas on many matters of law. She is also the elected representative of the people of Maine, with a duty to consider their interests and preferences, as she discerns them. And she is a member of the Senate, sworn by oath to defend the Constitution and to faithfully discharge her duties to the best of her abilities.
The idea that Collins has only one important identity, and that the identity ought to have been the beginning and the end of her judgment about Kavanaugh . . . well, that sounds like a distressing echo of misogynists who once insisted that women were all so similar, they could only want the same thing: a husband, a home and children.
Thank God for the bold, tireless generations of women who fought to liberate us from that stupid notion. But this woman, at least, will also thank their ideological successors to remember that liberation doesn’t mean much unless we’re actually free to be fully human. True freedom is impossible as long as our chromosomes force us to march in lockstep toward a single set of goals. And full equality with men is decidedly incompatible with targeting women for special punishment whenever they get out of line.