Eleven Republican senators, all of them men, sit on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Alongside them sit 10 Democratic senators, four of them women. This does not reflect great progress for the status of women in the United States. But on Thursday, those same 11 Republican men stepped aside and let a professional, a female prosecutor who specializes in investigating sex crimes, question Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about her accusations against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Ford’s testimony seemed not to have convinced most of the members of the Judiciary Committee, and on Friday they voted to approve Kavanaugh’s nomination, which will be sent to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. But the seed of doubt was sown in their hearts, at least in the heart of one Republican senator who is considered to be relatively moderate, Jeff Flake from Arizona. And this doubt was enough to make Flake propose postponing the final vote to provide time to further investigate the matter, and for the Republican leadership in the Senate and for U.S. President Donald Trump to agree to the delay.
Ford, a professor of psychology and a research psychologist, wrote a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the members of the Judiciary Committee, in July. In the letter, she described how Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when they were both high school students. Ford tried to maintain her anonymity after sending the letter, until reporters began camping out on her lawn and snuck into her lectures at the university.
In her testimony to the committee, Ford said Kavanaugh was drunk, attacked her violently, held her down and put his hand over her mouth to keep her from calling for help. Kavanaugh denied all the accusations in his testimony before the committee on Thursday.
Ford made history with her appearance before the committee due to her personal courage. Her hearing in the Senate was also symbolic for the battle for women’s equal rights. Ford overcame the trauma she suffered, her great fear of “jumping in front of a train” that would “annihilate” her. She overcame the threats she and her family received after her identity was revealed.
Ford made history also thanks to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which are trying to put an end to the silence that surrounds sexual harassment and assault. These movements, which join a long list of women’s rights movements, have begun over the past year to change the rules of the game, a game in which rich, influential and powerful men enjoy immunity and protection while harming both men and women in a criminal, unethical and immoral manner.
These movements have their work cut out for them and they are already suffering from a harsh counteroffensive, but a growing number of billionaires, politicians, businesspeople, large investors, CEOs and celebrities from the entertainment world have found out they can no longer act with impunity. The latest was Bill Cosby, the famous and formerly beloved comedian who was sentenced to three to ten years in prison last week, after being convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman 14 years ago.
Ford was questioned by Rachel Mitchell, an Arizona prosecutor who specializes in sex crimes, because the 11 Republicans on the committee were worried how the picture of 11 older men vigorously cross-examining a woman would appear on television. It may have been a public relations stunt for political purposes, but the fact that these influential and powerful senators are afraid of something shows the great change that has occurred since the hearing held in 1991 for Anita Hill, who testified at the time about being sexual harassed by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Hill was questioned and asked if she had a militant approach concerning civil rights – code words for being a feminist – whether she had fantasies, if she was a scorned woman, if she wanted to write a book on the affair and why she even continued to speak to Thomas if he treated her that way.
Even the Democratic senators at the hearing, including Joe Biden, treated Hill as if she was on trial. This is a familiar situation for many victims of sexual harassment and assault after they complain, even today. Nonetheless, Ford’s hearing could be an important milestone for how the judicial establishment treats victims of sexual assault.
Ford was an impressive and convincing witness. She used professional and scientific terms to explain why she remembers and is “100% certain” that it was Kavanaugh who assaulted her, even though over 30 years have passed.
In comparison, Kavanaugh gave his enraged, political and sometimes even uncontrolled testimony immediately after Ford. “Candidly, in the 25 years on this committee, I have never seen a nominee for any position behave in that manner,” said Feinstein the next day. He was cast in the role of the victim at the hearing, a victim vehemently denying all the accusations. He was the one battling to prove his innocence rather than the woman who accused him.
The procedure for the hearing – the professional questioning by a prosecutor who represented the Republican senators – helped to provide a foundation for Ford’s credibility and to set a new standard. Despite the scorn for the “PR stunt” by a “gang of angry white males,” she modeled the right way to treat women who testify against their attackers: As a witness for the prosecution and not as a defendant, as someone who is worthy of respect and support – and not someone who is required to prove that she is not a liar.
Even if Kavanaugh’s nomination ends up confirmed, the process the American establishment has undergone over the past few days will change it forever. We can only hope that the message from this hearing will trickle down – and also to the sides. It will take time, but with a little less cynicism, we are on the right path.
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