During the post-mortem of the contentious Senate vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, my mind kept going back to what a freshman said in the writing class I’m teaching.
The morning after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies, I asked how many students had watched the hearings. Nearly two-thirds of the students’ hands went up. I asked if anyone wanted to share how they felt. A young woman, one of the brightest in the class, said: “It made me feel like I didn’t have value. I can’t even put into words how I felt watching it.”
All I could say in response was that a lot of people could relate to how she felt. A few others, male and female students, also shared their thoughts. I wanted to give them a nonjudgmental space to say whatever they were thinking before moving on to the lesson of the day.
But her words and my response have haunted me.
I hadn’t said much by way of specifics to my own teenage children, either. I wanted to give the confirmation process a chance to play out, and the emotions involved felt too raw.
My husband and I talked to them in broad terms about the sexual assault accusations. I debated whether to watch parts of the testimony with my 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, and decided against it because it was so graphic and disturbing. This was a real person’s pain, not a public spectacle.
In the aftermath of the confirmation, the questions are even more difficult: Has anything changed since 1991, when Clarence Thomas was confirmed despite Anita Hill’s testimony of sexual harassment? Why does society still reward men who face multiple credible allegations of doing terrible things to women? Why do so many still blame victims or -- even worse -- try to ruin them for speaking out?
The Republican senators either did not believe what Ford said, or didn’t let it stop them from voting to confirm. One Democratic senator voted in support of Kavanaugh. The Republican president openly mocked Ford at a rally. His supporters heard him and cheered and laughed.
Those are facts, as hard as they may be to accept.
This was a painful process and outcome for millions of people, most of all for Ford. But there has been progress in how our society responds to allegations of sexual misconduct and violence. It’s the difference between what could have been a blowout and ended up a narrow loss.
More Americans said they believed Ford than Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh’s approval rating was in the tank: a majority (52 percent) believed he should not be confirmed. At least a few senators felt they needed the political cover of a hamstrung FBI “investigation.” More than 2,400 law professors signed a letter publicly opposing his nomination. A Republican-appointed retired justice spoke out against confirming him. Kavanaugh was eventually confirmed by senators who represent just 44 percent of Americans. He lost support even from several who publicly supported him before his troubling sworn testimony.
All of this matters.
Ford was an example of courage under fire.
Speaking out about such a personal and painful trauma, knowing that you will face additional threats and abuse because you feel it is your civic duty, is nothing short of heroic.
She also showed us what healing can look like.
After the testimony, we talked to our teenagers again about the risks of underage drinking, the importance of respectful intimate interactions, how to respond in uncomfortable situations and how to be a good friend to someone who has been hurt. We told them that there’s never any shame in seeking help, and that people can survive and thrive after suffering traumas if they get help.
Young people are getting all kinds of conflicting messages in the wake of a series of highly publicized allegations, and the resulting backlash. I’d like to drown out the noise and tell them the following.
To boys and young men: All the research shows that your chances of being falsely accused of raping someone are far, far less than a girl’s chances of actually being raped. I feel confident saying that the vast majority of you know that touching a person against their will is wrong. Do more to make that knowledge part of the culture.
Loudly. Subversively. Consistently. Bravely.
To my student, and other young women and girls: It’s OK to feel angry and frustrated and discouraged and sad. Survivors will not be silenced. We will keep working toward a more compassionate and just society. This country belongs just as much to you as it does to anyone else.
You have immeasurable value.