When the U.S. Senate rammed through the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh last weekend, it perpetuated anti-female biases as old as Western civilization. “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior,” wrote the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose teachings supported laws for centuries, “The one rules and the other is ruled.” The Bible also preached male superiority. Under Jewish and later, Christian, teachings women, children, and slaves were not allowed to testify in court because they had “flighty minds” and women were routinely valued lower than men.
These prejudices shaped views on rape for millennia. The accusation by the woman known only as “Potiphar’s wife” that the Hebrew prophet Joseph had raped her remained a symbol of falsehood for ages and was frequently depicted by artists like Rembrandt. The fear of such an “uncorroborated” rape charge and the consequent protection of men constituted law until recently. Up to 1972, a woman had to produce two witnesses to the act to prove rape in New York State, as well as show defensive wounds on her body.
I and many others found Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s assertion of sexual harassment against Brett Kavanaugh completely convincing. She had done her best not to make this charge public: by writing Pres. Trump directly when he put Kavanaugh on his short list of nominees, by contacting her congressional representative and asking her to keep the news private, and then by writing Sen. Feinstein and making the same request. When questioned, she did not seem at all partisan. She admitted she was fearful and emotional, but kept those feelings under control.
All this was used against her. Why had she not come forward sooner? (In my rape crisis program, we had a pamphlet called “I Never Told Anyone,” because this practice was so common.) Why had she come forward at all? How dare she “smear” this exemplary candidate?
The candidate himself used all the tactics unavailable to a woman like Blasey Ford, but at his disposal as a straight man. He showed extreme emotion, gulping and panting, crying and screaming. He accused his accusers of being partisan “destroyers.” He insisted that nothing could be corroborated. When questions did not suit him, he turned them back on his questioners. These tactics worked. The eleven white male Republican senators on the committee instantly took his side.
I have not used the word “white” before because of course this scenario occurred earlier, when the black Supreme Court candidate, Clarence Thomas, was accused of sexual harassment by a black law professor, Anita Hill. Thomas also invoked male privilege, while adding the race card, charging that believing Hill would constitute a “high-tech lynching.” His tactic worked as well as Kavanaugh’s twenty-seven years later.
Has anything changed since then? Yes, there are more women in public office. Yes, women have some more rights. But still, as Sen. Patrick Leahy proclaimed on October 6, after declaring that he had voted in favor of many Republican judges, Kavanaugh “has been relentlessly dishonest under oath…I have never seen a nominee so casually willing to evade or deny the truth in service of his own raw ambition.”
Complaining, as many others have, that only ten percent of Kavanaugh’s judicial record had been made available to the Judiciary Committee by its Republican majority, Leahy went on to denounce the “sham” FBI investigation. Limited by Pres. Trump to last only one week and to question very few persons, it “fell short by design.” Kavanaugh was voted in 50-48, almost completely on party lines. The vote was marked by unprecedented demonstrations against it.
Events like this have consequences, since they encourage those who share the same convictions. Trump empowered Kavanaugh; Kavanaugh empowered, among others, an associate professor at Brooklyn College to write in his public blog, “If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex….The Democrats have become a party of tutu-wearing pansies, sissies who lack virility, a sense of decency or the masculine judgment that has characterized the greatest civilizations: classical Athens, republican Rome, and the nineteenth century United States.” What did all three of these societies have in common? They owned slaves and subordinated women.
What can we do now? By 1853, the eminent Quaker Lucretia Mott had fought for decades to end slavery and demand the vote for women. She declared, “Any great change must expect opposition, because it shakes the very foundation of privilege.” Mott lived to see enslaved peoples’ emancipation, but died almost forty years before women’s suffrage became legal in the United States. Like her, we must keep on keeping on. The most important effort now is to get out the Democratic vote on November 6.