On Monday morning, California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh will each testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ford’s sexual assault accusation and Kavanaugh’s denial have made the Supreme Court the latest locus of #MeToo. The stakes for both the court and the movement could not be higher.
Over the past two weeks, the Senate Judiciary Committee has rightly scrutinized the nominee’s views on executive immunity, reproductive health, gun control and much more. Over the weekend, The Washington Post broke Ford’s story alleging that the judge assaulted her in the 1980s, when both were students at private high schools in suburban Washington. The story has raised the question: Is such an accusation relevant?
It is. Not only because it reveals something about Kavanaugh, but also because the discussion of his past behaviors exposes how we as a society address gendered abuse and violence.
Over two decades ago, another college professor, Anita Hill, testified at the hearings of another conservative Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. As she recounted the repeated sexual propositions and suggestive language she had endured when Thomas was her boss a decade earlier, Hill faced antagonistic questions and veiled accusations from senators on both sides of the aisle.
Senators intended this ordeal to reveal Hill’s character, but it displayed much more about them, the flawed system of workplace rights law they governed and the sexist culture that positioned them as arbiters of her experiences. The testimony was not just about punishing Thomas for the acts he may have committed a decade earlier. It exposed how institutions — Congress, the courts and federal enforcement agencies — allowed for sexual harassment to flourish despite being outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Most powerful men felt confident that the law of workplace equality did not reach them, if they thought about it at all. Hill’s testimony changed this. It forced millions of Americans to confront the contradiction between the ideals of equality professed in the law and the realities of inequality and abuse, and it began the reckoning that #MeToo continues today.
The millions of Americans who tuned in to Hill’s testimony were riveted by its optics. On Oct. 11, 1991, Hill — a 35-year-old black woman — sat alone at a table facing the 14 white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hill had not chosen to be there.
She had given confidential testimony to the FBI about Thomas’s inappropriate conduct when they both worked at the U.S. Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Judiciary Committee called upon her to recount those experiences in public. Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), chair of the Judiciary Committee and a Democrat, set the tone by grilling Hill about Thomas’s alleged sexual harassment, hammering at Hill’s discomfort with Thomas’s obscene talk and propositions.
Other senators piled on. Republican Arlen Specter (Pa.) was particularly harsh, but Democrat Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) exposed how even relatively sympathetic lawmakers failed to grasp how sexual trauma affects victims. Leahy probed minor inconsistencies in Hill’s accounts to suss out her trustworthiness. He pointed out that in an initial statement, Hill mentioned that she had previously told one person about the incidents with Thomas. She later said that she had confided in three people. “Now is there a contradiction there?” he asked. “I repressed a lot of the things that happened,” Hill responded. “I’m recalling more, in more detail.”
Survivors’ reluctance to pursue immediate redress is also sometimes used as a cudgel to their credibility. Leahy questioned Hill on why she had not come forward when Thomas had been nominated to lower federal judgeships. Hill responded that she “may have considered it,” but she “was not contacted” and chose “not to come forward on [her] own.” Ford, too, long resisted making her allegations public, reasoning, “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?”
Many Democrats were outraged when Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and that event inspired a steady rise in women’s membership in Congress to its current rate of just under 20 percent. But the self-declared party of gender equality held on to its troubled relationship to gendered abuse. Democrats remained loyal to Bill Clinton through repeated accusations of sexual misconduct, casting doubt on his accusers rather than cleaning house.
We are in a much different moment than the early 1980s, when Ford was allegedly attacked, and the early 1990s, when Hill testified. Women have reached critical mass in many professions, including politics, which is why party leaders successfully pressured Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), among others, to resign after allegations of sexual harassment. On the Senate Judiciary Committee, four of 21 members are women, which may lessen Ford’s feeling of isolation and change the style of interrogation when she testifies.
The #MeToo movement rests on a widespread consensus that rape and gendered abuse are wrong. This is why Ford’s allegations must be taken seriously. Young women who are the age that Ford was at the time of her attack still receive mixed messages that sometimes encourage independence and, at other times, naturalize boys’ dominion over their bodies.
When a close ally of the Trump administration reiterated the president’s support for the nominee, he confirmed, perhaps unintentionally, the commonness of Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior. “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this,” he told a reporter, “then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.”
That is the point. We must continue to strengthen our laws and reform our culture and politics, rooting out gendered violence and abuse so that no survivor will have to shoulder the burden of accusing a powerful man of anything.