By Joan Walsh-The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent, is the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.
Too many women woke up Friday morning feeling too much the way they felt the morning after the 2016 election—crushed by a suffocating sadness. The day before, a talented, thoughtful, long-suffering woman who did everything that was asked of her faced off against a boorish, angry, entitled bully, and unbelievably, she came up short. The Ford-Kavanaugh hearings were a master class in the annihilating expectations that bind women versus the lofty entitlement that shapes the world for men. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was patient, kind, deferential. She listened. She asked what was best for the senators questioning her. She wanted to be “collegial.” Her sadness and grief were evident but tightly wrapped, behind an emotional burka.
In contrast, Kavanaugh bullied and belittled the Democratic senators, trying to filibuster their five minutes with nonsense details about sports and studying, while hissing partisan bile. His low point was essentially accusing Senator Amy Klobuchar of blackout drinking, when she gently asked about evidence that he regularly drank to excess. It was a particularly cruel crack given that she had just confided her father’s struggle with alcoholism (another quintessentially feminine way to try to humanize a difficult line of questioning). Frankly, Kavanaugh’s demeanor confirmed stories that he could be angry and belligerent, especially when drunk. I don’t know if he has a drinking problem or not, but I have seen those tears of self-pity and self-righteousness when those who do are cornered: Everyone else is to blame for this awful place I find myself in. Why won’t you all trust me? You’re ruining my life!
Kavanaugh told lies big and small. He cruelly lied about the meaning of a sexual reference to a female classmate in his douchey yearbook notes, one she found “hurtful.” He lied about the meaning of “boofing” and “devil’s triangle” and “Beach Week Ralph Club.” He lied about the drinking age in Maryland. He lied about not watching Blasey Ford’s testimony; a Wall Street Journal piece featured him doing so. In the earlier hearings, he’d lied about receiving stolen Democratic documents when he was helping prep George W. Bush’s judicial appointments and being in on discussions of torture as staff secretary. We’re not yet sure he is a rapist, but we know he is a congenital liar.
A liar, and a partisan hack. “This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled by pent-up anger over President Trump in the 2016 election,” he whined. He ranted about the “revenge of the Clintons,” and dismissed the Democratic senators as “you people.” In those few hours, we could see the cruel partisan apparatchik who made Vince Foster’s daughter provide a hair sample when he was trying to prove Hillary Clinton had something to do with her father’s death. We saw the creep who insisted that Kenneth Starr ask the perviest questions about President Clinton’s sexual relationship with a White House intern in 1998. We saw the guy who used documents stolen from Democrats to prep GOP judicial nominees—and lied about it. Quite honestly, with his angry, entitled bluster, I saw a guy I could imagine doing what Yale classmates say: a guy who they suspect nailed a dead pigeon to the door of a gay classmate’s dorm room, who left his bathroom floor caked with vomit.
When Thursday was over, the Jesuit magazine America and the American Bar Association, both of which had touted Kavanaugh, withdrew their seal of approval and called for investigation into the growing number of disturbing allegations against him. But the audience that mattered most, Donald Trump and Senate Republicans, seemed to like what they saw. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on party lines to refer his nomination to the full Senate, with retiring Senator Jeff Flake making a toothless request to delay a floor vote for one week pending an FBI investigation. If Mitch McConnell has the votes to put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, he’ll do so—FBI investigation or no FBI investigation.
For the last two weeks—actually since October 7, 2016, when the Access Hollywood tapes confirmed that Donald Trump is a serial sexual abuser in his own words—American women have been struggling with collective trauma. For almost two years now, spurred first by the stories of Trump’s sexual cruelty and then by the tsunami of revelations in the #MeToo movement, women have been sharing stories of sexual abuse they’d never told anyone. I know the official statistics say one in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. But when women of a certain age—and maybe any age—listen to the stories of what Brett Kavanaugh did or tried to do to Christine Blasey Ford and Debbie Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, many of us have had to reevaluate our own experiences, and realize that things we dismissed as the cost of trying to be a free woman in the world, to be a “cool girl” with a cool social life—well, some of those things were rape, or attempted rape. That time in high school I managed to flip a male “friend” off of me before he ripped my clothes off—two times, actually—well, that wasn’t someone getting a little too frisky, or handsy, or aggressive—it was attempted rape. When we begin to talk to one another about all of those experiences, from grade school through college, in the workplace, at a business conference, in a car—we begin to think we’re going to have to throw that “one in four” estimate out the window. Talking to women this week, it feels like more than half. It feels like almost all of us.
Kavanaugh wasn’t the only hysterical, entitled male we had to put up with in this saga. Apparently, when Lindsey Graham lost his friend John McCain, he also lost his conscience, his decency, and his self-control. Graham took the reins from the Senate GOP’s hired interrogator Rachel Mitchell as she began to question Kavanaugh in some detail about his drinking (and zeroed in on a July 1, 1982, calendar entry featuring “skis” with the exact same friends Blasey Ford said were at the party where he tried to rape her). Yes, Graham plowed over another woman, rescued Kavanaugh, and trashed his Democratic colleagues. He was even worse on Friday morning. “I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should just shut up, but I will not shut up,” he roared from his leather throne, as he called Ford’s story “garbage.”
What happens now? We must continue to blitz undecided senators with phone calls and visits and hold Flake and other Republicans to their reported interest in an FBI investigation. Unbelievably, as I write, the most vulnerable Democratic senator, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, came out against the Kavanaugh nomination. That took guts, but it shows that Ford’s story, and Kavanaugh’s bullying behavior, got through to at least one senator. Unfortunately, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who’s up by 10 in a race that was expected to be close, is said to be leaning toward confirming the judge. He should hear from us. Then there are the lone pro-choice GOP women, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski’s more likely to buck Trump, since her state’s governor and lieutenant governor have come out against the president’s nominee. Collins is a perennial disappointment, but she has previously said she wants more investigation into the charges against Kavanaugh. Can she stick to that demand and hold back her vote until she gets it? I wouldn’t count on it, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
And then, it’s become a cliché: We’ll get them in November. The signs of a blue wave are strong, but it’s cold comfort if the Senate confirms a rabid right-wing accused rapist with a lying problem to the Supreme Court, to cement a conservative 5-4 majority that will erode the rights of women, workers, poor people, and voters of color. And it’s no comfort to women who’ve struggled to come forward to report sexual assaults, only to fear they won’t be believed, or that it won’t matter anyway. That’s what they’re seeing today. Shaken, Senator Chris Coons testified Friday that five women he knows texted him during Thursday’s hearings to tell him about sexual assaults they’d never revealed before. But he’s a Democrat: Kavanaugh’s confirmation shows that angry, boorish, entitled, female-abusing male behavior isn’t disqualifying to Republican senators; one would have to conclude it’s credentialing.
Let’s work our asses off in November, anyway. We’re women—that’s what we do. Their time will be up, just not as soon as it ought to be.