How the #MeToo Movement has Shaped the Judge Kavanaugh Hearings
27 years ago, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judicial Committee (SJC), describing the allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court (SC) nominee Clarence Thomas. Recently the infamous images from the hearing have resurfaced, depicting Anita Hill, a former colleague of Judge Thomas, standing in front of the Committee, pleading with a row of 14 white men.
Despite Judge Thomas being nominated by a Republican president George H. W. Bush, the SJC largely consisted of Democrats. Even though the Democrats are now perceived as the more gender-inclusive party, they had little influence over the way in which Professor Hill was questioned. Because of Judge William Brennan stepping down from the SC, the Republican Party (GOP) needed Judge Thomas’ confirmation and, as they had a minority in the Senate, their goal became to undermine the credibility of the accuser. Every question that Hill was asked focused on her integrity, the attacking questions intended to disrupt her statements detailing the sexual misconduct of the nominee- almost pushing her to perjury. The nomination ended with a Senate vote, resulting in the narrow 52-48 confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas for the SC. It is important to note that 41 Republicans voted for his appointment and 2 against it, whereas 11 Democrats voted for and 46 against it.
Flash forward to Thursday 27th September 2018, in the same room, Dr Christine Blasey Ford brought forward her testimony against the new nominee for the SC, Judge Brett Kavanaugh; alleging that he sexually assaulted her in high-school.
However, this hearing, in my opinion, went a completely different way to that of Professor Hill. It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement went viral- sparking both courage and backlash in regards to sexual misconduct/assault in all sections of public and private life. The world has not seen such a movement for a long time. Though the social change in regards to sexual misconduct may not always seem visible, the change over the past 30 years has been astronomical and very positive; the past few days are the best example of this trend.
However, Professor Hill and Professor Ford, both high achieving academics, were treated very differently during their hearings. In Hill’s case, the goal of the senators seemed to be to prove (convince the people) that she was lying, while in Ford’s it was to make sure Kavanaugh was not lying. The roles, then, have clearly switched, the accuser has stopped being interrogated by those in charge of seeking the truth and instead the accused was questioned, as it should have been from the beginning. Even though the SJC is now led by the Republicans, the hearing was more gentle than 27 years ago.
After the hearings 27 years ago, the American public was asked for their opinion: did they think the allegations against Judge Thomas were true? The overwhelming majority of people said that they were false. One of the arguments used to Thomas’ advantage was that the hearings were little more than a ‘high tech lynching.’ However, with Kavanaugh’s hearing, both people in question were white and so historical issues surrounding race could not have been used as a counterargument to the allegations or to swing the public’s opinion.
In the #MeToo Era, a Politico poll determined that only 37% of voters approve of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation for the SC. Thus, it seems that public opinion on alleged sexual misconduct/assault victims, in general, has changed drastically. Previously, people would assume the innocence of the accused and expect an investigation to give them proof of otherwise, just as it is usually done in other criminal cases like homicide or fraud. Years of activism (including #MeToo) has promoted victims, of both sexes, to be more comfortable bringing to light their own experiences and, therefore, the dynamic has changed. In most cases of sexual misconduct/assault, whether it is rape or harassment, usually the only evidence is the victim’s testimony that is juxtaposed with the alleged offender’s own testimony, including witnesses. This means that it is much harder to perform an investigation and to find the verdict. Due to many recent high profile cases and investigations (Harvey Weinstein), people have recognised an issue/imbalance in how cases like Professor Hill's were tried and are more eager to support the allegations of the victim. The role of investigations and trials has become to prove the accuser's innocence rather than their guilt.
The expectations and approach of the public came to play a role during both Dr Ford’s and Judge Kavanaugh’s hearings. Because of the nature of her hearing, Dr Ford when questioned was mostly calm in her statements; keeping in mind the huge pressure on her and personal trauma. On the other hand, Kavanaugh and the senators who were asking the questions were very emotional and expressive. The senators supporting the nominee, because of their ties to Trump, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, wanted him to come out of the trial as the victim- mistreated by the system and the Democrats. The ones who opposed his appointment or did not have any strategic gain from Kavanaugh being appointed, like Jeff Flake, were asking pointed questions investigating his guilt. In particular, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s questions about particular sexual terms along with other senators’ questions regarding drinking would not have come up 27 years ago, because both the senators and the public would likely have believed a man of stature, like Thomas or Kavanaugh over Professor Hill and Dr Ford. They either trusted Doctor Ford, did not trust Kavanaugh, and/or wanted the truth when, before the movement, Kavanaugh's guilt probably would not have even been considered.
All this combined with the infamous elevator door discussion with other alleged victims led senator Jeff Flake to bring forward a motion to postpone the Senate vote for a week, so that FBI could perform an investigation on the case. Due to the shortage of time, the investigation was unsuccessful in providing new details. However, this SC hearing still marks a turning point for the approach towards sexual misconduct/assault cases in the US politics.
The Republican party now fears midterms and wants to convince the public they are not as bad as the Democrats portray them, while at the same time wanting the Trump supporters to stay with them. These opposing goals are one of the reasons why we see such a variance between the two hearings as well as the behaviour of the Republican senators. Depending on what the Senators want to accomplish strategically, they either attacked or tried to help Kavanaugh. However, due to the activism and events of the #MeToo era, the politicians no longer dare to personally attack the possible victim. And that is a win that people favouring the movement can be proud of.