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Brett Kavanaugh is the #MeToo movement’s biggest challenge

The decision whether or not to confirm the judge to the U.S. Supreme Court will help answer the question: Do we value women in this country?

Brett Kavanaugh is the #MeToo movement’s biggest challenge
[Photo: Flickr user Phil Roeder]

It’s been almost a year since the #MeToo movement exploded in the wake of the New York Times and New Yorker articles detailing allegations of decades of sexual assault by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In the months that followed, dozens of men accused of sexual misconduct have fallen from prominent positions, one after another, like power-suited dominoes.

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Weinstein has since been indicted on charges of rape and predatory sexual assault. Entertainer Bill Cosby, who was accused by more than 60 women of unwanted sexual contact, has been sentenced to three to 10 years in prison for drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand. Many others have lost their jobs in light of sexual assault accusations.

But not everyone has fallen so hard. Some have left with a severance in hand, like CBS head Les Moonves; others quietly continue to do business, like former venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck, who privately invests in companies as an “angel.” Still others, like Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer, have tried to stage comebacks. Their attempts have been shunned, with rare exception. Certainly, Americans are still deciding whether men who have been ousted for mistreating women and are not facing criminal charges should be able to rebuild their careers.

Looming in the backdrop of all of this is a larger question: Do we value women in this country?

Whether or not Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court will serve as an answer to that question. The outlook on that decision has been complicated by a strange turn of events. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) stated on Friday afternoon that he would confirm Kavanaugh on the condition that a weeklong FBI investigation into the allegations against him be carried out. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin III (D-WV) are supporting his request for a delay. The judiciary committee has formally requested that the White House conduct a “supplemental FBI background check,” one that would be limited to “current credible allegations” against Kavanaugh, which must be completed in a week. President Trump has since authorized the investigation.

Prior to this occurrence, Kavanaugh’s confirmation seemed like a certainty.

Two women had come forward to accuse the judge of sexual assault. Then a third filed an affidavit claiming she witnessed the judge drinking heavily and waiting for his “turn” to have sex with an inebriated woman who had been corralled into a bedroom at a house party. But only one of them, Christine Blasey Ford, was invited to give testimony ahead of a Friday vote on his confirmation. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, forcefully denied all allegations.

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The rush to vote caused Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), on the eve of Thursday’s hearing, to take to the Senate floor and ask: “Do we value women in this country? Do we listen to women when they tell us about sexual trauma? Do we listen to their stories about how their lives have been forever scarred? Do we take their claims seriously? Or do we just disbelieve them as a matter of course?”

Republicans have largely ignored the women who have come forward. Even before hearing Blasey Ford’s testimony, Republicans insisted on a Friday vote. “Unfazed and determined. We will confirm Judge Kavanaugh. #ConfirmKavanaugh,” tweeted chief counsel of nominations Mike Davis on Wednesday night. During Thursday’s hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Republican Chuck Grassley was slightly kinder to Ford Blasey, acknowledging how hard it must be for her to come forward. He simultaneously reminded committee members how difficult the allegations have been on Kavanaugh. Then, instead of interviewing Blasey Ford themselves, Republicans hired a prosecutor to interrogate her as if she were on trial.

For her part, Blasey Ford offered a powerful account. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she recalled of her assault. “The laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.” As the hearing wore on, Republicans grew increasingly uncomfortable. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) could not contain himself, at one point calling the allegations against Kavanaugh a political smear campaign. “What you [the Democrats] want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020,” he said.

While Blasey Ford testified that she received death threats and that she and her family have been forced to move out of their home, she says she has received far more support. No doubt: some 1,600 men said they believed Blasey Ford in a full-page ad in the New York Times. Another 1,000 alumni from Blasey Ford’s high school, Holton-Arms, signed a letter in her favor. Following Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimony, Democrats, the American Bar Association, and several Republican governors called for a hold on the vote, pending an FBI investigation into the claims.

Until today, the White House and Republicans have repeatedly denied this request and pushed for a vote. 

“Instead of getting the facts, instead of even wanting the facts, they try to dismiss this as a smear campaign,” Gillibrand said to her colleagues, noting that Anita Hill got a more serious reception in 1991 when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. 

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An FBI investigation would doubtless surface a lot more information about the alleged incident. Agents are likely to interview not only the people who were supposedly at the gathering described by Blasey Ford but also their families, friends, and neighbors at the time of the incident. Furthermore, it would force those who have so far only submitted written statements to actually be interviewed, fully aware that lying to a federal agent is a crime.

While yesterday’s testimony provided little additional insight into whether Kavanaugh sexually assaulted anyone, it did put Kavanaugh’s character—the very thing that the judiciary committee is ultimately trying to understand—on display. “Is he an honest person, is he trustworthy?” asked Gillibrand in her Wednesday speech to her fellow senators. “Can we trust him to do the right thing for decades? Rule on women’s lives for decades to come, can we trust him to do that right?”

Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. [Photo: Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images]
In his opening statement, Kavanaugh was agitated, alternately shouting and crying. He refuted the claims, often repeating himself. He also frequently interrupted Democratic senators during their questioning. He didn’t offer very much information to counter the detailed accounts against him. When several Democrats asked him why he wouldn’t ask the president to open an FBI investigation into the claims, he evaded the question. When Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked him whether he ever drank to the point of blackout, he quipped: “I don’t know, have you?” He later offered a muted apology for that remark.

Notably, Kavanaugh said he did not listen to Blasey Ford’s testimony—a perfect metaphor for this whole proceeding—because he was too busy preparing his own remarks. 

Over the course of his testimony, the judge appeared hot-headed. Under strain, he seemed petulant and rude. He also downplayed his drinking, contradicting stories he himself has told about the way he likes to party. Furthermore, he was uncooperative, denying every allegation against him and often misrepresenting the statements of the party’s alleged participants, in which they claimed not to remember the event, as outright denials. His testimony stood in stark contrast to Blasey Ford’s poise and served as a reminder of how we often give a pass to to men who lash out in public while criticizing women for doing the same.

Of course, not everyone sees Kavanaugh that way. They see a man who is upset because he’s being unfairly accused of something that may never have happened.

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The push to advance Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is full of mixed messages. On the one hand, it sends a message that so many of our elected leaders are willing to let women speak their minds, but not ready to give weight to their testimony. They are not ready to see male entitlement when it stands right before them. They are not ready to understand that men can have upstanding professional careers and also be capable of sexual assault and dishonesty. They are certainly not willing to investigate these possibilities until the pressure becomes politically unbearable. On the other hand, Flake’s request for an FBI investigation and the committee’s decision to agree, even if it is just a formality to pacify Democrats, shows that maybe women are finally being heard.     

Regardless of what the FBI investigation yields, it is still extremely likely that Kavanaugh will make it to the Supreme Court. Republicans hold the majority, after all. But there is still some hope that change is coming. When Anita Hill’s testimony was ignored in 1991, more women than ever were emboldened to run for office—and win. History is likely to repeat itself during the 2018 midterm elections. Change does not come as swiftly as we’d like, but it comes.

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About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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