The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the midterms approach, women’s rights remain the fault line in American politics

They have been since Roe v. Wade

Brett M. Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27 as part of his Supreme Court confirmation process. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Because of the pitched battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanuagh, a national debate about sexual assault looms over the upcoming midterm election.

This debate superseded the fight many expected to have when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy retired in June: one about abortion. After all, Kennedy was essential to the court’s razor-thin 5-to-4 majority in favor of preserving legal abortion.

The narrative shifted, however, after Kavanaugh was accused of sexually assaulting at least two women during his high school and college years.

Millions of Americans tuned in to watch Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her at a high school party in 1982, testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 27. Hours later, Kavanaugh angrily rebutted her allegations before the same panel on live TV. He has denied all other accusations against him. And yet, although it’s tempting to think that the abortion debate was cast aside, in reality, abortion lurked as a critical unspoken factor in the fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination. The arguments on both sides over Kavanaugh’s conduct mirrored those long offered over abortion. And with the midterm election three weeks away, leaders of both parties — who routinely use abortion as a wedge issue to motivate voters — are left hoping that these sexual assault charges will do the same.

It wasn’t always this way. For much of American history, abortion and sexual assault were considered private issues — not discussed in polite company, let alone in front of a national television audience or on the stump. A woman defending her right to end a pregnancy or publicly naming a man who had victimized her body was simply unthinkable.

This silence stemmed from the idea that men were entitled to unquestioned sexual freedom, including free rein over women’s bodies. Women’s sexuality, on the other hand, existed so they could procreate as part of monogamous marriages. The notion that women should focus on motherhood and domesticity was a major factor in denying them political and legal rights at the nation’s founding. And it continued to be true for more than a century and a half, at least for white men and women.

All of that changed by the late 1960s and early 1970s, as emerging feminist groups sought to make, as one popular slogan declared, “the personal political” through new laws and public awareness campaigns. Sexual assault and the desire to end a pregnancy were no longer experiences to be privately borne by women in shame, silence and danger. Feminists argued that, like that of men, women’s sexuality no longer needed to be tethered to procreation; they had a right to control their bodies, which included ending a pregnancy, for any reason, under safe and legal conditions. Men no longer had an absolute right to women’s bodies, and they should be exposed and held legally accountable when they acted as though they did.

This new feminist consciousness and accompanying activism led 17 states to legalize abortion in some form before the Supreme Court did so at the federal level in 1973. It also resulted in more rigorous sexual assault laws that, for example, limited the ability to question victims about past sexual behavior and classified marital and partner rape as crimes.

Although both major parties were initially receptive to such ideas, feminist policy proposals became enshrined in Democratic Party orthodoxy, because of its internal McGovern-Frasier reforms (1969-1972). These changes opened up space for new voices to determine party priorities and migrate into leadership roles, clearing a path for feminists to become a key Democratic constituency. Feminists sought to give women rights and choices beyond compulsory motherhood, making the legal right to choose whether to be a mother perhaps the most fundamental woman’s right. Gradually, supporting legal abortion became almost a prerequisite for being a feminist (and a Democrat).

At the same time, an opposing politics of conservative “family values” — or a retreat to heteronormative gender roles and the traditional nuclear family — took root in the GOP as moderates, most of whom supported legal abortion, began losing ground. Opposition to abortion was at the core of this politics, helping to win over religious (mostly evangelical and Catholic) former Democrats, who abandoned the party over its support for legal abortion. The antiabortion family values agenda also appealed to (mostly white) women who felt that feminists and their Democratic allies were dismissive of homemaking and motherhood, despite feminists’ insistence and policy proposals to the contrary. They saw feminism as an assault on their way of life and an attempt to force women out of their homes and into the workforce.

While abortion moved to the center of these party dynamics, the politics of sexual assault and misconduct remained largely submerged. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 sparked a fierce debate about sexual harassment. A year later, fury over Hill’s treatment by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee prompted a record number of women to run for office. But otherwise these discussions remained out of the political limelight.

The election of Donald Trump — who bragged about sexual assault on tape and faced 22 allegations of sexual assault and misconduct — changed that. Within a year, movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp were shining a bright spotlight on gender inequality and sexual assault and harassment. Powerful men in business, Hollywood, government and the media stood accused and lost their jobs; a few faced criminal charges.

The Kavanaugh allegations emerged in this context of heightened feminist consciousness and played out in a manner that echoed decades of abortion debates.

Over the past month, women channeled the abortion “speak outs” that feminists held in the 1970s. Back then, women advocated for legal abortion by sharing their own, often terrifying, experiences with illegal abortions. Today, in solidarity with Ford, women confronted lawmakers and began recounting their own assaults, many for the first time.

By making the personal political in this way, Kavanaugh’s detractors hoped to expose widespread systemic abuses and exert some control over situations in their own pasts where they had none. Like with abortion, they and their Democratic allies rallied around two ideas: allowing women more personal autonomy, and ensuring that the law — or a Supreme Court justice — does not get in the way of that pursuit.

Republicans and other defenders, including Trump, argued that Kavanaugh was the real victim, targeted by dishonest women who had damaged his reputation. This line of argument mirrors claims that legal abortion dangerously opens the door for women to seek “abortions on demand,” with male partners and the unborn becoming the victims of their choices.

Whether by seeking the right to legally end a pregnancy or by calling men’s behavior into question, women are seen as out of step with the maternal obligations and gender power dynamics upon which the Republican family values agenda is built.

In both cases, family values conservatives also think the demand for greater personal autonomy from women would undermine other sacred values. In the case of Kavanaugh, the American emphasis on due process and justice; in the case of abortion, innocent lives.

The midterm election will test whether these opposing views of gender and sexuality that the Kavanaugh nomination dredged up can energize each party’s base as abortion has done in the past.

Recent polling indicates that, after the allegations, Kavanaugh lost favor most significantly with independent and Democratic women. Republican women, by contrast, were the only subset of Americans — male or female — whose opinion of the judge improved. Those same groups are the most reliable subset of voters on both sides of the abortion issue.

But while we do not yet know how these sexual assault allegations will affect the elections, one thing is certain: The politics on both sides sound deeply familiar. If these allegations had never surfaced, we probably would have tread over similar political ground in replacing the court’s swing vote on abortion — a sign of precisely how central the issue of women’s rights still is in American politics.