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The Ford-Kavanaugh Hearing Was A Clash Of Gender Politics

Dianne Feinstein won her Senate seat in 1992, “The Year of the Woman.” More women were elected to Congress that year than any previously. Four were newly elected to the Senate, bringing their total number to six out of 100. On Thursday, Feinstein, now one of 23 women senators, harkened back to the early 1990s when she spoke of Christine Blasey Ford, who has brought allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“There’s been a great deal of public discussion about the MeToo movement today versus the Year of the Woman almost 27 years ago,” Feinstein said. “But while young women are standing up and saying no more, our institutions have not progressed in how they treat women who come forward.”

The day’s testimony was emotionally charged and fraught with partisanship, a feast of food for thought even by the news-heavy standards of our day. How do women fit into traditionally male power structures in 2018, not just in the sense of having a seat at the table, but in having their worldviews understood? Differing worldviews shape politics, after all — and they find their roots as far back as high school.

Women experience the world in radically different ways from men, something that seemed crucial to understanding what happened at the Senate on Thursday. The women who spoke — all Democrats — voiced support for Ford having chosen to come forward. Many of the Republican men who spoke said they believed Kavanaugh was being smeared with expedient allegations in a highly partisan moment. What struck me was the consistency with which these two worldviews were at loggerheads, playing out in front of a national audience. While Ford’s accusations were heard by the committee, male Republican senators had outsourced their empathy. Rather than ask questions themselves, they hired a female prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, to do it. In one fell swoop, the GOP caucus exhibited its post-MeToo understanding that they needed to take Ford seriously and implicitly declared that they didn’t trust themselves to do so. With Mitchell asking questions of Ford, a hearing became a trial. Yet when Kavanaugh spoke, the senators largely bypassed Mitchell.

Numerous times, Kavanaugh’s defense of his character centered around talk of the all-boys Jesuit high school he attended, Georgetown Preparatory School. He was a good student there, he said, someone who devoted himself to sports, attended church weekly, socialized with girls from Catholic high schools and remained a virgin for many years because of the culture of religiosity in which he grew up. But his yearbook page, filled with crass innuendo about drinking and sex, sheds a different light on those years. I have no doubt that Kavanaugh remembers his high school days most vividly through study, sports and friends. How he and his friends bonded and comported themselves, though, has been cast under a harsh light. Ford remembered “Brett” — not “Judge Kavanaugh” in her testimony about the assault — as a drunk boy in a tight-knit social circle. She seems to have been a girl who existed on its periphery, who by her telling was treated horrifically.

I’m making a guess, but it’s likely that many of the male senators hearing Kavanaugh’s telling of his teenage years recalled their own. A little drinking, girls, a few stupid mistakes. It’s the most understandable thing in the world to see someone you like and relate to and want to believe them. But I also wonder what the female senators might have thought hearing Ford speak.

Every grown woman in a power suit was a teenage girl at some point. Having been one myself, I can attest to the occasional agony. People write great rock songs about American girls, but have you ever noticed that the lyrics are kind of sad? On one break from testimony, a 76-year-old woman called into CSPAN to say that Ford’s testimony had brought up terrible memories of her molestation when she was in the second grade. She wept for a few minutes on television; she will never get a cable-broadcasted congressional hearing.

That two of the decisive votes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation in the Senate are women, Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, seems cosmically fitting. Depending on how they vote, they stand to be either castigated by their Republican colleagues as traitors to the cause or by many women for their failure to believe a victim of assault. It’s a Chinese finger trap of gender and politics. Unquestionably, though, Kavanaugh seems to have aimed his highly emotional testimony — he cried at times, berated Democratic senators at others — at President Trump in an effort to shore up his nomination. A power-seeker seeking his highest understanding of power. Maybe, though, Kavanaugh’s fate will prove to be in the hands of two women, and not the president. Gender and politics — and gender politics — are tricky like that.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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