Samantha Nutt is an author, staff physician at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, and founder of War Child Canada/USA.
The entire circus around Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation was an unwanted refresher for women and girls of the lessons forced upon us throughout our lives.
As girls, we learn that:
To have opinions is to be angry,
To be angry is to be unattractive,
To be smart is to be threatening,
To speak up is to be shut down,
To have confidence is to be demeaned,
To have strength is to be intimidated,
To be difficult is to be lonely.
As women, we learn that:
To have ideas is to be ignored,
To ask questions is to be discounted,
To be ambitious is to be obnoxious,
To tell the truth is to be accused of lying,
To have expertise is to be dismissed,
To be successful is to be judged,
To be in the spotlight is to be attacked.
This is what women have been trying to explain loudly, defiantly, clearly, for the past year: enough. Maybe this overdue reckoning is the missing piece of the woman’s movement – the last frontier of feminism. Or maybe it is the shared anger of a generation raised to believe in equality (and for which we thanked our mothers and grandmothers), only to discover that we could still be talked over, objectified, suppressed and browbeaten with relative ease and impunity. Not by all men. Not even by most men. But by some men, who have more influence than they deserve.
At odds with the message of the #MeToo movement, the biggest take-away from Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is how little has changed in the corridors of traditional power: The mostly white, male Senate will obligingly listen, so long as their way prevails. A man’s “precious reputation," as Hannah Gadsby so aptly conveyed in her breathtaking Netflix special Nannette, is still more important than a woman’s story of assault.
Yes, there is the presumption of innocence, and there is the burden of proof in criminal law, and these are critical protections to which we are all entitled. But those high legal bars are not the substance of a Supreme Court confirmation process. Such proceedings are not a judicial verdict on guilt or innocence, but a revelatory inquiry into the integrity and competency of the nominee. It is an exhaustive job interview for the most omnipotent legal body in the world’s most powerful democracy. That nominee, if successful, will decide what is in the best interests of millions of Americans – including women – likely for decades.
In 1991, Clarence Thomas, facing accusations of persistent sexual harassment by Anita Hill, did not meet that minimum standard. Yet, he was appointed. Justice Kavanaugh has not met that standard either, and he will likely be appointed as well. This isn’t a question of left or right, Democrat or Republican: It is simply a question of whose story – whose experience – matters most. How are women supposed to feel with two Supreme Court justices sitting on the bench who, quite clearly, do not understand what it means to be vulnerable, preyed upon and powerless? Probably about as happy as they are with a President who was accused by at least 19 women of various forms of sexual misconduct, and who thinks his Supreme Court pick is “a fine man” (a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found the President’s approval rating among American women to be 65-per-cent negative). Whether Justice Kavanaugh did or did not attack Prof. Blasey Ford as she alleges, or whether he genuinely can’t remember because he was too inebriated or because the encounter left no impression on him (after all, he had no reason to be afraid), is not the point: That he could not bring himself to even once acknowledge her anguish says more about him than his angry, combative, self-martyring defence.
We’ve heard a lot, in recent weeks, from men accused of assault by multiple women about their feelings of persecution and frustration. What are women – especially their victims – supposed to do with that, exactly? Forgive them? Absolve them? At this point, our best hope is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg lives forever.
As I listened to Prof. Blasey Ford’s gut-wrenching testimony, her fear was personal to me, as it was, I am sure, to millions of women. So many of us have stories that, in her words, we’d be “terrified” to share: stories of encounters with those who robbed us of our sense of autonomy and invincibility with their groping hands and unbridled entitlements. I was in awe of her bravery.
I teared up as two women cornered Republican Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, who minutes earlier had endorsed Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination, and demanded he look at them and tell them that their experiences of rape meant nothing to him. I was grateful to CNN for letting this awkward, strained and emotionally powerful confrontation hang on air, without cutting to commercial or flipping to a partisan talking-head ranting about whether it was all just more political theatre. Here we are, the women were saying with raw emotion, tell us we don’t matter. Mr. Flake was uncomfortably speechless, but it was enough to sway him to trigger an FBI investigation, however brief and perfunctory.
The women I have met and worked with in war zones all around the world – in Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond – also want those same assurances: to tell their stories of abuse and sexual violence. They want to know that they count for something, that others are listening, and that their pain will not go unnoticed.
This is the lesson women are now asking men to learn, in order that the hard lessons meted upon us our entire lives might someday have a different ending. That day, it would seem from events of the past week, is still tragically a long way off.