Ford's Politeness & Kavanaugh's Anger Are Everything That's Wrong With Gender In America

Photo: Erin Schaff/Pool/Bloomberg.
This morning, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the first of at least three different women to come forward and say they experienced sexual misconduct at the hands of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegations. The process of Dr. Ford even getting to tell her ordeal was fraught, with Republicans claiming her story wasn’t credible and instead just an attempt by Democrats to obstruct a GOP Supreme Court pick. The result was inevitable: A tense hearing focused on scrutinizing some of the most traumatic moments in Dr. Ford’s life.
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Watching the first 90 minutes of Dr. Ford’s hearing unfold, there was a lot to be appalled by, from Republican Senator Chuck Grassley’s opening statement — where he tried to paint Kavanaugh, the alleged assailant, as a victim — to the fact that Republican men didn’t even plan to lead the questioning of her, opting for female prosecutor Rachel Mitchell to do so instead. But one series of actions left me particularly unsettled. It began when Dr. Ford made a joke about needing caffeine just as the hearing started and after Senator Grassley said the first of many unkind remarks towards her, including questioning her timeline and motives for coming forward.
Then Dr. Ford began laughing nervously once the opening marks concluded. And next, after being told to read through evidence presented to her and swear under oath that all of her statements were true, she told the committee that she could “read fast” so as not to slow down the hearing and the five-minute time limits Senator Grassley imposed. Towards the end of the first round of questions, as Senator Grassley said that they were going to give Dr. Ford a break, she asked him a question: “Does that work for you?” followed by an explanation of trying to be “collegial.” She followed up more than a few questions with an “I’m sorry.”
What I found so difficult about watching Dr. Ford’s dutifulness to the senators — the moments of levity, the politeness — had absolutely nothing to do with her or her story. She’s beyond courageous and incredible. Instead, what left me heartbroken was that I saw myself and practically every other woman in those moments of deference where she felt the need to apologize and almost play “hostess,” even though she was the brave person telling her story to the world and putting everything on the line.
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Ask any woman you know if she’s nervously laughed, apologized repeatedly, or made endless accommodations for others at the expense of her own feelings and I guarantee you most will say yes. After all, it’s just one of the many costs of womanhood: In particular, the “rule” that men — and specifically white men in power, at that — always need to be the most comfortable people in the room and that women need to be the ones making them feel comfortable. And in exchange for playing your assigned role as a woman, you may be spared utter destruction by those same men. There’s no better contrast to this theory than how Kavanaugh conducted himself during parts of his portion of the hearing — angry, loud, and aggressive. At one point, spit practically flung out of his mouth as he vehemently defended himself.
Yet for women, this politeness, even when we’re the aggrieved party, is still a gamble. And it’s a gamble that women routinely lose. We watched, after all, as Senator Grassley continued to try and spin the narrative of Dr. Ford’s testimony as some sort of Democratic hit job. Her attempts at lightening the load for Senator Grassley in the hopes of him lightening hers didn’t pay off. Worse still, if women don’t play this role of polite mediator, if they don’t accommodate others, their physical, mental, and psychological safety are in jeopardy.
And in trying to be ever-accommodating, women also deal with the fact that they may have to compensate in other ways if deference isn’t enough. Dr. Ford herself juggled between apologizing for being “collegial” while also talking about topics within the realm of her academic expertise, such as epinephrine and neurotransmitters. It wasn’t naivete; like many women have had to do in the past, it was likely in the hopes of striking the right tone and making the right impression. Kavanaugh had to do none of this as he called the mere existence of the allegations against him a “national disgrace,” and lamented the effects of them on him and his family. (Never mind that Ford and her family have had to hire private security and leave their home since going public with her story.)
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Even if the public does end up feeling like Dr. Ford is “credible enough” — an entirely different travesty where she needs to prove herself and yet Kavanaugh somehow doesn’t — the fact still remains that she had to go through emotional gymnastics to be seen that way. And therein lies a common experience of womanhood.
In order to counter this, we need to support one another. That means standing up for those around us in our daily lives. In personal situations. In the workplace. At the ballot box. What Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is doing — standing up on her own to tell her terribly traumatic story — is nothing short of heroic. She’s not only standing up for herself; she’s standing up for all of us and the sanctity of the Supreme Court.
But imagine a world where women could stand up for themselves and others without feeling the need to accommodate people — especially men — in the process. And imagine a world where a woman who is called upon to speak about a traumatizing experience of her life can feel free to object or say "no," and others in the room would have to accommodate her.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.
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