Dear Dr Christine Blasey Ford,
Anita Hill’s testimony and the Senate response put out in the open how women are stripped of this basic power, right, and equality, or are assumed to be incapable or unworthy of it in the first place.
As you must know better than most of us from your profession of psychology, credibility – being considered a person who should be believed – is foundational to one’s standing as a member of a family, of a university, of a workplace, of a society. Anita Hill’s testimony and the Senate response put out in the open how women are stripped of this basic power, right, and equality, or are assumed to be incapable or unworthy of it in the first place.
In the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony, a vast collective conversation about workplace harassment opened up. Those who had not experienced it directly – at least those who were willing to hear – learned how pervasive and insidious it is and why women don’t report it (even recent statistics show how often the consequences for reporting are punitive). Reporting of such harassment increased dramatically, meaning far more targeted women were able to recognize their mistreatment or tried to find remedies.
The seldom remembered Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed “to provide appropriate remedies for intentional discrimination and unlawful harassment in the workplace”, especially when employers use “a particular employment practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”. And the next year the federal election became known as “the year of the woman”, because more women ran for office and won than ever before. The shockwaves of her testimony rippled outward in all directions.
It is too soon to measure the consequences of your testimony, Dr Ford, though there have been endless media assertions that this confrontation between you and Judge Kavanaugh was a test of #Me Too (even the headlines put on one of my essays framed it that way). There are so many problems with that framework.
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One is that #Me Too is only one fruitful year in a project for the rights and equality of women that goes back more than 50 years by one measure, almost 180 by others. Another is that what all this has sought to change is patriarchy, an institution that is thousands of years old. The test of our success is in the remarkable legal and cultural shifts we have achieved over the past 50 years, not whether or not we have changed everyone and everything in the past year. That we have not changed everything does not diminish that we have changed a lot.
The word “we” raises other questions. There is not a “we” in this situation. There are many. There are those who have engaged with the news, the conversation, and the literature to understand how pervasive the problem of sexual violence and violence against women is. There are those who are survivors of sexual assault and other kinds of gendered violence – and we are legion – who know all this in visceral ways. And there is another we that insists on not recognizing the problem, who have chosen not to listen to the endless supply of stories. This is one of the huge fissures running through this country and society.
Sexual assault thrives on the silence of its victims, and these past weeks have shattered some of those silences.
“Bravery is contagious,” said Senator Leahy at the outset of your testimony. “You sharing your story is going to have a lasting permanent impact … We owe you a debt of gratitude.” You have opened up space for tens or hundreds of thousands of others to tell stories that need to be told and that others need to hear. Sexual assault thrives on the silence of its victims, and these past weeks have shattered some of those silences. There is a geological term, punctuated equilibrium, that proposes the Earth evolves, not steadily, but with long uneventful intervals ruptured by epochal change. Feminism too has its punctuated equilibrium, and the response to the Anita Hill hearing in 1991 and to many ugly events in recent years have been ruptures that changed the social landscape. You are yourself a welcome earthquake.
You have, by telling your own story with wrenching vividness, opened up space for countless voices to be heard, for many to tell their own stories for the first time, for the balance to again shift a little. You did not want this role, but when you felt it necessary you came forward and you spoke. And for that, you are the hero of millions. I hope that despite the threats and attacks, you can feel how significant that is, and that you know that the threats and attacks are happening because what you do matters so much. One of the two women who confronted Senator Jeff Flake on the elevator, in the now-famous video, asked him a question about Kavanaugh: “Can he hold the pain of the country and repair it? Because that is the work of justice.” It seems clear to many of us that he cannot, and that in some way you already have. I know I speak for millions when I say thank you.