Melanie Sloan is a partner with Summer Strategies, a public affairs firm. She was minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee from 1995-1998.
It’s hard to publicly allege misconduct by a powerful man. No woman wants to be known primarily as a victim of harassment or, worse, assault. It’s humiliating. We — women who have gone public — are so much more than accusers or victims. Yet, once the news breaks, we are reduced in the eyes of the world to the role of accuser. The fact that we had a career, too — whether as a college professor, lawyer, actress, journalist, writer or waitress — gets lost.
Christine Blasey Ford had excellent reasons to want to remain anonymous in her allegations against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh. It could hardly have been lost on her that — forevermore — rather than being known for her academic work, she would become infamous as a woman who alleged attempted rape by a Supreme Court nominee.
Last fall, when a reporter called me to ask about my employment with then-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the first words out of my mouth were “off the record.” Because I wanted to corroborate what other women had alleged about sexual harassment by Conyers (which he has denied) and bolster their credibility, I agreed to share some of my own experiences with the caveat that the reporter not attribute them to me, but rather to a “former staffer.” I spent a day struggling over whether I, too, should publicly come forward. I knew that it would be much harder to dismiss allegations made by a named person. I knew that only when women come forward publicly will we ever consign the culture of secrecy surrounding male misconduct to the dustbin.
In the end, I decided to attach my name to my statements. But the consequences for coming forward are daunting. In at least some quarters, you are ridiculed, dismissed and labeled a liar, a lunatic — or both. Even some friends, family and colleagues are not supportive and instead question why you needed to stick your head out at all.
If the harassment or assault left you emotionally damaged and your career suffered, or caused you to leave your chosen field, you are unstable and not credible. If you overcame the harassment or assault and went on to career success, whatever happened must not have been as bad as you claimed, and you are not credible.
If you work in politics and reveal misconduct by someone on your side of the aisle, some of your compatriots may call you disloyal (at least behind your back); your political opponents will applaud you as a hero — even if some of them demonized you in the past when you took positions with which they disagreed.
Even while praising your courage, potential employers wonder if you are a troublemaker and may pass you over, preferring a candidate with less obvious baggage.
And unless you go on to even greater infamy — thanks to our appetite for scandal and the algorithms that feed us — this will be the very first thing discovered about you in any Google search, probably for the rest of your life. Monica Lewinsky’s impressive anti-bullying campaign, for example, still turns up well after her involvement in the Clinton impeachment scandal. Anita Hill has spent decades as a law professor, yet the first thing to pop up is her testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing.
So the downsides of walking into the klieg lights are substantial. But there also are benefits: On a personal level, the upside may be hope for long-delayed validation that what happened to you was, in fact, wrong and not your fault, and you might even obtain some sort of rough justice. But most importantly — at least for me — was understanding that if I did not come forward, I could not expect anyone else to do so either. And if none of us publicly shares our stories, forcing men — and not just the women they’ve hurt — to suffer real consequences, then how can we expect change?
Twenty-six years after Hill endured a grueling hearing in which senator after senator attempted to undermine her credibility, another woman is nevertheless courageously considering whether to brave a similar grilling by another group of entirely male Republican senators. Maybe in the wake of the myriad women disclosing their own #MeToo stories, men will come to terms with exactly how unacceptable harassment and assault are. Maybe we won’t have to watch the same narrative unfold yet again.