“You are not on trial.”
US senator Kamala Harris used these words to reassure Christine Blasey Ford today as the Senate Judiciary Committee repeatedly questioned the psychology professor on the most traumatic experience of her life. As Harris pointed out, Ford was not on criminal trial. But to the millions watching at home, prosecutor Rachel Mitchell’s parsing and analysis of Ford’s words, and assessment of Ford’s credibility, suggested that Ford was very much being tested. The goal was to see how Ford would be categorized: As a slutty woman, a vindictive one, a stupid one, or—that rarest of breeds—a woman who should be believed.
The Kavanaugh hearing is an extreme and deeply upsetting example of the systemic oppressions all women face, all the time. Of course, it is not only a symbol of wider injustices. For Ford, it’s a very specific reaction to her allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her 36 years ago.
But there is a reason why so many women today are in a state of anger or despair. It’s because so many of us know how she feels, having experienced some form of the doubt and dismissal that are levied at victims of sexual assault and women in general.
Few women have been compelled to dress for Senate hearing, or prepared to have their traumatic experiences scrutinized by an entire nation. But most know exactly what it’s like to carefully choose a certain outfit, hoping to convey respectability. All too many women have adjusted the tone of their voice to show their vulnerability—but not too much—and their confidence—but not too much—all while trying to find the words and demeanor that enable us to be taken seriously. And millions know exactly what it’s like to be sexually assaulted, and to have the perpetrator go unpunished.
The #MeToo movement became a phenomenon because sexual assault and harassment is a near-universal experience for women, one that has largely gone unpunished. The epidemic of sexual violence occurred not because of evil perpetrators acting of step with society, but because they are entirely in accordance with it.
These patriarchal pressures are in evidence in the fact that the first woman who spoke at the Kavanaugh trial was immediately interrupted, and in the fact that Kavanaugh was permitted to yell belligerently and interrupt senators without reprimand. These are just a few examples of the prejudicial attitudes that, at their worst, allow men to sexually assault women and believe they can get away with it. The smaller, frustrating ways in which women are belittled or dismissed lie on the same spectrum of misogyny as more severe traumas. Sexism is endemic. And there’s a direct line between the impulse to interrupt a woman when she’s trying to speak and the horror of covering her mouth.
This hearing is about whether Kavanaugh is fit to be a Supreme Court judge. But it’s also a striking, searing demonstration of the ways in which our culture attempts to silence women’s voices, and the many subtle, pervasive ways in which women are perpetually on trial.