Ever since murmurings began to emerge that a woman had accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school, Kavanaugh’s confirmation has been viewed as a referendum on the #MeToo movement. If Kavanaugh, who denies the accusation, is confirmed to the Supreme Court, this will — or so we’re told — prove the movement has failed.
And yet, far from a referendum on #MeToo, the public conversation around Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Kavanaugh shows that the #MeToo movement has already won — or, at least, made an important difference. For the conversation has shifted dramatically from one about what constitutes a crime to one about what constitutes evidence of a crime.
When Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment three decades ago, even some Democrats didn’t acknowledge that what Thomas was accused of — describing pornography and genitalia and repeatedly asking Hill on dates — amounted to “a silver bullet.” Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat, famously said, “If that’s sexual harassment, half the senators on Capitol Hill could be accused."
And, of course, Republicans were even worse. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania accused Hill of perjury and suggested the accusations were the result of Hill seeking revenge because Thomas didn’t show enough sexual interest in her.
Twenty-seven years later, we are living in a very different world. Few people are defending the behavior of which Kavanaugh stands accused, even among conservatives who would very much like to see him confirmed.
More surprising, fewer still are accusing Ford of lying. For conservatives and liberals alike, the pertinent question regarding Ford’s accusation is not whether she’s lying, or whether Kavanaugh’s alleged behaviors can be forgiven as the folly of youth. The question is whether there’s enough evidence, and what would constitute evidence of a crime.
That attempted rape at age 17 should be disqualifying for a potential Supreme Court justice is accepted by almost all. Prominent conservative voices — including prominent conservative male voices like Ben Shapiro and Seth Mandel and David French — have called Ford’s claims serious and worthy of further investigation.
That didn’t stop President Trump from tweeting his doubts about her claims. But in a rare exception to the norm, Sen. Mitch McConnell rebuked the president, calling to tell Trump that his comments were “unhelpful.”
Instead of calling Ford a liar or minimizing the accusations against Kavanaugh, many conservatives are demanding evidence for her claim or resorting to the theory that she is mistaken, which is a far cry from accusing her of lying. One ill-advised version of this was the much-circulated theory of conservative strategist Ed Whelan, who tweeted an elaborate doppelganger theory.
Outlandish as such speculation may seem, it speaks to a sense of restraint among Republicans.
This sea change may stem from the approaching midterms, in which suburban women already disgusted with the allegations against the president himself will be key, and no one wants to risk alienating a voting bloc. As John Danforth, former Republican senator from Missouri and Thomas’s champion during his 1991 confirmation hearings told the New York Times, “Members of the Senate, especially in the #MeToo era, have got to walk on eggshells.”
And yet, that accusing a woman of lying about sexual assault is tantamount to alienating a voting bloc is further proof of how far we’ve come. Despite the sharp partisan lines surrounding Kavanaugh and Trump, conservatives and liberals have found something they agree about: While liberals may think that an accusation is enough to bar a SCOTUS candidate and many conservatives do not, both sides increasingly agree that sexual assault should be treated seriously, demanding elaboration rather than silence.
In other words, Ford’s accusation, met with requests for proof from Kavanaugh’s supporters, shows that we are living in a world where most people — even most conservatives — treat accusations as potentially credible. Ours is no longer the world of the “Access Hollywood” tape. It’s not even the Roy Moore world. It’s the #MeToo world now.
Conservatives and liberals may differ on what constitutes that standard of proof. But that’s much better than differing on what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior. And it’s infinitely better than treating all women as liars.
Even if Kavanaugh is confirmed, we should rest assured that the #MeToo movement has made a difference, however much work remains.