If you ever wanted a vivid display of what patriarchy is and why it persists, then this was it: the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearing. In the wood-panelled hearing chamber, we witnessed a play in two acts: the characters were a patriarch (a father and judge) and a woman who broke her silence. A woman who spoke out and whose allegations were met with indignant rage – the violence that follows whenever a woman’s silence is broken and power and privilege is threatened.
Patriarchy’s persistence rests on men’s violence and women’s silence.
The first act, her testimony, was all about the optics of democracy. The hint of hope; the hope of being heard seen and felt as an achievement.
A “good” woman speaking out against a more powerful man was cross-examined, not by her white male Republican detractors, but by a female prosecutor who began by saying: “The first thing that struck me from your statement this morning was that you’re terrified. I just wanted to let you know I am very sorry. That’s not right.”
The moment is heartfelt, electric. The witness is articulate and vulnerable. Democratic senators along with some Republicans commend her bravery in speaking out and underscore the public value of her act. It feels game changing; Christine Blasey Ford is so credible. Surely her voice will prevail?
Then, however, we come to the second act. The act of patriarchal persistence. Kavanaugh gives his testimony – indignant rage is the phrase that comes to mind. Almost instantly we sense the power of his response.
He makes sure not to speak badly of his “good” woman opponent, yet he speaks with a level of anger that were he in any lesser position would be seen as undignified, ranting, or disrespectful. He interrupts repeatedly and threatens revenge on the Democrats by warning: “What goes around comes around.”
While giving a nod to listening to the woman’s accusations, the Republicans respond to Kavanaugh casting himself as an innocent victim by agreeing, saying, in effect, this ”poor man”, this “pillar of the community”, this “guy’s guy”, how dare his honour be called into question? As if the position to which he were nominated was already his to be taken away, rather than a privilege yet to be bestowed. Rage is interpreted as a powerful demonstration of his authority and entitlement, reinforcing rather than undermining his qualifications to be a Supreme Court justice.
We are blindingly aware of the dual standards these two witnesses are being held to: how amenable and calm she needed to remain throughout in order to be believable; how his indignation was a well-oiled, well-deployed machine.
Kavanaugh’s anger is a resource to which his gender, race, and class have afforded him full use. Sympathy for him obliterates sympathy for her. He says all allegations must be taken seriously and we must listen to both sides, yet being subjected to this line of questioning is, he makes it very clear, an indignity that he finds intolerable.
The nominee runs through his academic credentials, affiliations with sports teams and elite institutions – the implication, of course, is that elite, successful intelligent men like him do not do such things as that to which he stands accused. His close friendships with women – he lists them repeatedly, Becky this, Megan that – are paraded, as if men cannot have friendships with some women and abuse others.
He holds up his public record and support of women in the workplace as if we don’t know what we all already know: sexual abuse is something that happens in private, behind closed doors.
By the time of the second act, Ford’s voice, which had been so strong, becomes a faint memory; it is easy to forget how credible her testimony was. As the senators file out of the hearing room, we have a sinking feeling: Ford had broken her silence but, at least for the moment, patriarchy persisted.
In a different time and space, this would have remained a two-act play. A woman breaking her silence followed by the violent outburst of a powerful and entitled man. His rageful denial presented to the world as a righteous indignation, the play would have ended when Kavanaugh and his Republican allies labelled the matter a travesty – his honour restored and business as usual.
Yet this is the age of #MeToo. Women are refusing this narrative arc.
On Friday afternoon, as Republican Senator Flake walked to the committee room to cast his deciding vote – and after earlier declaring he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh – Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher confronted him in an elevator and condemned his decision. Both women spoke of their own history of sexual assault and explained what Flake’s vote meant to them.
“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Gallagher said, holding open the elevator door so Flake would hear her. “I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them.”
“Look at me,” one of the women insisted.
A few hours later, Flake announced that he would not support a final vote on the Senate floor unless the FBI could have one week to look into Ford’s accusations.
These women activists have written a third act to this story. We are left with the hope that this play will end with women breaking their silence and this man disbarred from sitting on the highest court of this land.
More than this, we are left with hope – hope that the doors behind which most abuse occurs don’t have to remain locked forever.
Carol Gilligan is a professor of humanities at New York University and author of In a Different Voice. Naomi Snider is a human rights lawyer. Together they are the authors of Why Does Patriarchy Persist?
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