No matter what ultimately happens to Brett Kavanaugh and the women who accuse the Supreme Court nominee of sexual misconduct, the Senate hearing on the allegations will offer a historic test of the #MeToo movement, which began only a year ago.
Since it coalesced around accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the movement has brought even the most commanding abusers in Hollywood, journalism and politics to their knees. But #MeToo has also been about believing survivors, and the treatment of Kavanaugh’s accusers raises questions about whether that part of the mission remains largely unfulfilled.
The young movement is “fighting an uphill path, going against centuries of accepted, ingrained bad behavior,” said Kristen Houser of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “I think people say we’re at a tipping point. I don’t believe that. I don’t think anything’s tipped.”
Some advocates say the handling of the complaints — especially lawmakers’ unwillingness to authorize a deeper investigation into Kavanaugh’s conduct — shows how far the movement still has to go in changing the way women are treated by powerful men. Others insist that the GOP dismissal of the accusers doesn’t reflect a failure of the movement, but of a largely white, male Congress to adapt to changing times.
The tension began as soon as the allegations emerged. Republican lawmakers were initially united in their refrain: The first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, deserved to be heard.
When a second woman came forward, instead of repeating that idea, lawmakers doubled down on their support for the judge. They hurled insults at Democrats and implied that opponents had crafted a grand scheme to torpedo the nominee.
Jess Davidson, executive director of End Rape on Campus, said the Senate Judiciary Committee’s conduct has been “the most disappointing experience of my survivor advocacy so far.”
Ford, a California psychologist, alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in the early 1980s, when the two were teenagers in suburban Maryland. A second woman accused Kavanaugh of another assault dating to his first year at Yale University.
Ford is scheduled to testify Thursday before the committee, which is composed mostly of men. The committee must endorse Kavanaugh’s nomination before he can receive a vote by the full Senate that could confirm him to a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court. The second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, has not been scheduled to testify.
Kavanaugh is supposed to testify after Ford. He has denied all allegations.
“I had never sexually assaulted anyone, not in high school, not ever,” Kavanaugh said Monday during a televised Fox News interview.
Since coming forward, Ford has received death threats. GOP lawmakers have not accused her of lying or questioned her motives. Instead, they’ve suggested Ford is confused, merely misremembering the episode.
Even if Ford’s account is true, others have said, Kavanaugh’s nomination shouldn’t be upended by what they characterize as drunken adolescent behavior.
“It was drunk teenagers playing seven minutes of heaven,” tweeted Fox News columnist Stephen Miller.
Since Ramirez’s account became public, GOP lawmakers and Kavanaugh supporters, including President Donald Trump, have dug in.
“The Democrats are working hard to destroy a wonderful man, and a man who has the potential to be one of our greatest Supreme Court Justices ever, with an array of False Accusations the likes of which have never been seen before!” Trump tweeted Monday.
On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the allegations “a despicable smear” and “a new low.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said Ford should have her say, but that his mind is already made up.
“What am I supposed to do, go ahead and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation?” he said Sunday in a Fox News interview. “Unless there’s something more, no, I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this.”
Davidson said she’s deeply disappointed by the similarities she sees between Kavanaugh’s accusers and Anita Hill, who famously testified that she was sexually harassed by then-nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Those hearings are now widely considered a case study in how not to treat a victim. One senator asked if Hill was a “scorned woman.” Another asked, “How could you allow this kind of reprehensible conduct to go on … without doing something about it.”
Less than a year after the first story about Weinstein, “to watch lawmakers fail to do this in a different way, and to watch the public fail to hold them accountable, really makes me question how much (the #MeToo movement) has really changed hearts and minds,” Davidson said.
But some advocates say GOP attitudes toward survivors don’t accurately reflect the movement’s gains. On the contrary: They simply make the Senate seem woefully out of touch.
GOP lawmakers are “missing the power of the last year, where people have so powerfully and importantly named their experiences,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.
She said Republican senators’ response to the allegations — at first saying that Ford is confused or misremembering, then alleging an orchestrated smear — “dives deep into the tropes surrounding sexual violence that this whole year has been spent disrupting.”
Other institutions take more serious action when confronted with sexual violence, but the Senate seems to engage in “an effort to lean in to bias,” she said. “This will not be a proud moment in history when people look back on 2018 and wonder how is it that the Senate was so out of touch.”
Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, said the fact that not one but two women stepped forward is a clear indication that survivors are becoming more empowered to come out of the shadows. What’s happening on Capitol Hill, she said, doesn’t show the true power or impact of the movement.
“Politics always follows culture,” Thomas said. Americans “shouldn’t be surprised that Republican senators are not reflecting that culture change. Until they’re replaced, we won’t see the power of the #MeToo movement, or survivors or women in the Senate.”
Complicating matters is that this discussion is taking place in a highly partisan bubble, magnified by the nation’s political divide.
Sarah Beaulieu, founder of The Uncomfortable Conversation, an organization dedicated to normalizing conversations about sexual violence, said she worries about stories of sexual abuse and assault becoming “weaponized in a way that hurts both survivors and efforts around prevention, education and cultural change.”
Still, she said, her conversations with people and organizations “reflect a world ready for change.”
Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.