I’ve thought about Anita Hill often in the past week, as the hearings to appoint Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court advanced despite the multiple credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him. I think about how a panel of white men questioned Anita Hill about her sexual past and how despicably she was treated by politicians of both parties. I think about how far we’ve come in many regards. And at the same time, and in the same breath, I lament how much farther we have yet to go.
In 1991, there were only two women in the Senate: Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. Neither sat on the Judiciary Committee, and the voices of women in the process of confirming Justice Clarence Thomas were easy to ignore by the 98 men who made up the rest of the body. The results were powerful: The 1992 elections saw the unprecedented feat of four women elected to the Senate. It was dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”
The progress since then has been slow but striking. There are now 23 women in the United States Senate. It’s a far cry from a representative number, but it is a level of influence in the U.S. government that was probably unimaginable to Hill when she sat in front of a panel of hostile and condescending men. I’ve long wondered just how differently that hearing might have been if there had been more women in the Senate in 1991. Would there have been softening of the unnecessary and pejorative personal attacks? Would the questions have been focused on the nominee instead of the woman he victimized?
Now, 27 years later, we know. And heartbreakingly, it’s not the answer I would have hoped.
The Kavanaugh hearings looked different from the Thomas hearings — at least on one side of the aisle. Ranking member Dianne Feinstein, Mazie Hirono, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris comprise nearly half of the Democratic members of the committee. And the tenor of their questions for Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford will stand in history as a stark contrast to those received by Justice Thomas and Hill. The Republican side, however, looks just like it did in 1991. All white men. And their questioning reflected that same undeniable narrow perspective.
We heard from President Trump and from Judge Kavanaugh himself how he was the real victim. And from that group of 11 Republican men on the Judiciary Committee, we heard about what a great man Kavanaugh is. Even after Dr. Ford’s powerful accusations became public, those men painted a picture of the honest carpool dad filled with integrity. We heard nothing from them when it was Dr. Ford’s turn to tell her story. They were so afraid of the optics of a group of middle-aged white men asking her about her sexual abuse that they hired a woman to do their probing. This was pure sexism, and it allowed these men to do something more cowardly — totally disengage. They did not have to look Dr. Ford in the eye. They did not have to listen with an open heart and mind.
“The lasting legacy of Kavanaugh and Trump will be a nation of engaged, voting, empowered and elected women who will shape policy.”
Their silence and inability to be human was just as damning as their accusations were in 1991.
Despite the deep and disturbing questions about Judge Kavanaugh, he was confirmed on Oct. 6. This continues to institutionalize sexual violence while setting the stage to remove many of the rights that generations of women who came before have won in hard-fought battle after battle.
And yet, I do have hope.
In the past year, I have been part of a firestorm of powerful women changing the world. I’ve shared and heard stories of unimaginable trauma and pain and rebirth. I’ve been inspired by women who are taking over every level of government, and by the tsunami of women poised to reshape the House and maybe even the Senate in just a few short weeks.
Kavanaugh and Trump are two sides of the same coin: entitled, aggressive, predatory, toxic. In 1991, that coin was enough to change the face of government. In 2018, the lasting legacy of these two men will be this: a nation of engaged, voting, empowered and elected women who will shape policy in spite of these two men and the 11 Republican white men on the Judiciary Committee.
I hope Hill sees that we’re learning the lessons of her pain. I hope that she feels pride in the #MeToo stories of which her strength and conviction are such a powerful part. I know that women will never put down the torch she started carrying — and that the men who have held their boots on our throats for so long are on the verge of total and complete irrelevance.
And to Dr. Ford, I say, “Thank you.” Thank you for being the voice for so many. When we line the streets and fill those offices with our collective pain, we do so because you have given us the power to accept truth. Kavanaugh may sit on the bench, but women are in the game to play.